What defines great cinema? Well, producer Martin Scorsese gave his two cents on that matter this week (See his quotes here) and while his comments are up for debate, it’s hard to not acknowledge his influences in modern cinema. His ability to convey emotional and psychological meaning through visual media that requires little explanation in the dialogue because he can show it so well that audiences can connect to it. It’s therefore no surprise that the film heavily influenced by his early works such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and The King of Comedy (Among other separate works) would be not just a transcending piece of cinema…but I rather significant one.
Joker not only exceeds expectations much of the time…it’s a film that is so surprising in it’s depth that one would think Scorsese himself had been at the helm. Yet, surprisingly, the film is more than competently handled by Todd Phillips, known for his over-the-top comedy films such as Old School and The Hangover films. In fact, beyond the Scorsese influences, he seems to almost embody a directing style akin to Paul Thomas Anderson, allowing for an operatic visual symphony where little is said and visuals bombard you thematically as well conveying the film’s own internal mythology.
That mythology of course is rooted in the brewing and developing nihilism that lead character Arthur Fleck endures and than eventually deflects back at the very society that seems more than fine beating him down due to his initial desire to strive for hope and meaning. I, of course, refer to Paul Thomas Anderson’s work because Fleck’s chosen vessel, the always committed and deeply invested Joaquin Phoenix, finds himself in a similar odyssey that Phoenix brought to the screen when he started in PTA’s 2012 film The Master. Enhanced by the similarly opera-style score that Hildur Guðnadóttir brings to Joker, the melancholic score in Joker drowns you in it’s own mood and works to help unfold the grim layers that the lead character pulls back throughout the film until he gets to the dark and bitter core of his own tale.
Fleck searches for meaning with a wide-branching viewpoint on society that slowly has it’s weakest limbs trimmed as his story as an aspiring comedian with a tragic, lonesome life unfolds. Constantly rejected by an increasingly frustrated society that doesn’t have time for empathy for a member of it such as Arthur, Phoenix goes the deepest an actor can in a role. In the process, he shows just why the Joker has been a role so widely pursued by actors over the years.
The Joker, in this interpretation, maintains his most definitive views on the world. That it’s cold and selfish where the most cruel and vicious rule (Under the guise of caring) while those who attempt to take time for others are rather taken advantage of. And as Fleck’s conflicting natures due battle between his wish people would be better to others and his self-pity in being mistreated himself, you see Phoenix’s gears turn wildly with abandonment. Eventually, and it’s preordained obviously, you see the switch in his head turn from limping optimism (Sometimes quite literally limping) to carefree nihilism. The great joke to Arthur is that life is a joke. He seeks meaning and ultimately is driven mad.
It’s an old fact that comedians seek to make fun of the worst of the world. To laugh at it as a way to fight it where fear becomes ridiculed and minimized. Joker is a film that simply shows the scenario of what happens when fear wins. When anger wins and the joke isn’t enough to deal with that cascading darkness. Arthur contends with his fellow man in every form from cynical, potential love interest Sophie Dumond (Played by Zazie Beetz) to “top dog” talk show host Murray Franklin (Played by Robert De Niro) to his delusional mother Penny Fleck (Played by Frances Conroy). And as he does, as he attempts to find humor against all this darkness, these characters intersect with him and influence him, eventually leading to a vicious and predictably tragic conclusion.
It’s interesting to note that despite this being a film leaning on Phoenix’s performance (Which it should as it’s really about his mental state), for those who know how this story eventual ends and continues in the comic book canon, the joke is that from his anger will come a symbol of hope that takes the form of darkness he embraced and uses it to point people to the light again. This is to reassure any shaken by the horror of this film that the world does balance itself out eventually.
To properly enjoy Joker, one must separate their own realities and simply want to see into the mind of a character who has no relatable traits (Something Phoenix was keen on doing). The film is a slow-burning tale that, at times, enjoys it’s own clever take on the character too much, but it’s one that still offers something even critics of the comic book can enjoy. A brutally honest viewpoint that never holds back with visuals so sharply and patiently followed by the cinematography of Lawrence Sher. With frames that force you to look a little bit longer at the tragedies of this character, that conveys his opposing characters with feelings of separation and thus enhancing the isolation of the character on a visual and thematic level.
In the last several years, many filmmakers have attempted to make big thematic tales with intimate settings and a noted through line of claustrophobic environments to help keep the film from having to contend with the actual real world that those films feel they are speaking about believably. And increasingly controversy has spoken on how they seem to use violence and metaphor in lieu of those films’ narrative strength.
In 2017, Darren Aronofsky tried to make heavy commentary about climate change and consumerism with mother! but at the cost of the characters possessing really no personality and the story intentionally using “dream logic” to make the film’s themes seem plausibly purposeful to the real world. In irony, a film in which he calls the audience a bunch of a consuming animals who will devour babies because it’s a product was rejected by audiences so heavily that the film saw itself a Razzie nominee that year. In 2018, the Suspiria remake came under heavy fire for attempting to do the same thing and was met with the same sort of stomach-churning wonder what the point of making the film really was.
However, in 2019, Joker did what those two films didn’t do. It let the film’s story speak for the themes instead of the themes speaking for the story. People go to documentaries for straight-up themes and real world meaning. They go to movies to experience something much deeper and harder to grab onto. They tell a story and let the audience make with it what they will, not simply holding a sign up in their face and go “This is the film’s meaning! Take it and accept it!”.
The word controversy is funny because controversy implies divided opinion and film is, by it’s greatest attraction, subjective to multiple opinions. Joker takes that understanding and let’s audiences unfold this complex character study from afar without fear of being preached to. Praise and rejection go hand-in-hand in this business. And Joker is the ultimate “controversial” film…as all films should be.
- Performance of the cast (Namely Phoenix).
- Film sometimes let’s itself get carried away with it’s own ideas.
- Film’s narrative is not afraid to lean on it’s influences at times. No wonder Scorsese doesn’t like Marvel, DC basically took his films and turned it into a comic book film.