If you were to simplify Todd Phillips’ JOKER and perhaps observe the battered flesh scraped over the bones of its star, you might find the villain. This 2019 picture has been polarizing critics the world over, as if the goal of art is accord and like-mindedness. The themes, however, are bare as greasepaint.
And that’s where the mastery lives. JOKER is written by Phillips and Scott Silver and naturally based on the comic book character from the Batman universe, but the clown prince here could be any clown prince or clown princess. It details a descent (or rise) into insanity that is a fable for any time in which wealth and the worship of it is its own sacred reward.
Joaquin Phoenix is Arthur Fleck, a clown and wannabe stand-up comic working on Gotham City. We meet him when he gets the crap kicked out of him. Gotham is like Arthur’s life: a fiery, crumbling hellscape populated by destitute citizens and overseen by a badgering, condescending Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). Wayne, of course, wants to run for mayor because that’s what billionaires do.
Arthur is looking after his mother (Frances Conroy). She worked for Wayne and now she’s living in a shithole “apartment” with her mentally ill son because that’s Gotham for you. One day, Arthur slays some “Wall Streeters” on the subway after he gets the crap kicked out of him. Later, he’s invited on his favourite talk show. That goes about as well as it could.
Phoenix inhabits the role of Arthur with raw pathology. His relentless laughter is a kind of signal, a possible marker of his intensifying ventures with insanity and an off-putting reminder that all is not well. As Phoenix’s character becomes more clownish, his surroundings loyally reflect the dark gulf between rich and poor.
Arthur sees a social worker (Sharon Washington) and she tells him the straight dope right after budget cuts push him further into the margins: “They don’t give a shit about people like you.” But then she adds, “And they really don’t give a shit about people like me, either.” Gee. Why would that be?
Consider how Wayne references the Wall Streeters, the ones Arthur kills. They are, to the billionaire, guiltless as babes. And the killer, just like the hoodlums demolishing Gotham because of reasons? They’re “clowns.” This stoking the flames of antipathy is hardly subtle, even if Phoenix’s turning of the screw takes a few extra laps before it snaps off in the wall.
JOKER is not a fantasy. It is about a man slipping through the cracks. It is about life in a chasm of dread, budget cuts, wealth-worshipping electoral commodities. Any Caped Crusader set to defend this mess might have his own need to retcon reality, but Phillips isn’t touching that one. This film is its own composition of folly, its own song-and-dance number set to the tune of the broken, its own killing joke.