Even though Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker practically bagged all awards in 2019, it was a sorry example of a DC supervillain’s origin story. Here’s why.
There should be a special place in cinema Hell for self-indulgent films gone wrong. Two years after Todd Phillips’ Joker picked up the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the film still feels excessively unnecessary – both in its purpose and treatment. Hailed as the film of 2019, Joker was packaged as Joaquin Phoenix’s magnum opus, a cinematic experience that would see the actor’s transformation (bodily and otherwise) into DC’s beloved supervillain.
Both Phillips and Phoenix heavily banked on the idea that Joker was ‘different’ to its cinematic predecessors. But on the film’s release, the entire feature felt like an empty promise. Thematically, the film drew from Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, but the lived-in feel of Arthur Fleck’s (Phoenix) world had vapid loopholes that Phillips’ eye completely missed. The harrowed streets of Gotham felt little more than the occasional shouty slogans that few random bystanders are seen carrying in multiple shots. The chaos-generation is so skewered, that Fleck’s descent into Joker’s claustrophobic world felt unjustified.
Fleck’s transformation into the antagonist was supposed to be a result of Gotham’s rampant lawlessness and mindless violence. In Joker, that’s hardly ever a trigger. The darkened alleyways and shady nooks and crannies of rat-infested subways hold little value in Flack’s character development, and more as a mere prop to prove some kind of the superficial point. Phillips fails to navigate this metropolis in a manner that triggers Fleck’s mental framework. For both Phoenix and Phillips, Joker is all about the man.
Innumerable discomfiting close-ups of Phoenix ensure that the audience is perpetually jittery (a smart cinematic trope by cinematographer Lawrence Sher). However, Fleck’s “anti-rich” crusade is hardly ever backed by justifiable motives. That Fleck was attacked in the tube by corporate, Wall Street-y men was a sheer coincidence. It could have been anyone that night, and it would still have evoked a similar reaction from Fleck. Not for a moment are audiences made privy to Fleck’s inner struggles.
Phoenix underwent a gruelling weight loss regime that resulted in Fleck’s lean, skeleton-like appearance, an effort that was lauded across the board as an epitome of method acting. But despite the compelling visual treat, Joker is unable to stir the recesses of Fleck’s insecurities that gave birth to one of cinema’s most menacing anti-heroes.
The treatment of Fleck’s character also suffers under Phillips’ nonchalant lens. The film depicts Arthur’s medical condition, where he inadvertently erupts into peels of uncontrollable laughter. A brilliant cinematic device in its own right, it could have been placed at junctures in the film to extract Fleck’s psychopathic tendencies. Instead, Phoenix is seen cracking up in a bus, ending up scaring a child.
The biggest blasphemy that Joker commits is divorcing Fleck’s ideology of dissent to any particular social conscience. The mindlessness of it all actually inhibits a complete investment in the character, and you almost feel uninterested with his apparent ‘madness’ and quickly ignore it as over-acting (a marker Phoenix has never been associated with).
The contradiction that delicately balances the alter egos of Fleck and the Joker is hardly ever addressed throughout the film. Phillips even forgets his own narrative thread (or so it seems) when he fails to rectify the mistakes in his own storyline. While he claims that Arthur did not have any socio-economic or political impetus for his descent into madness, he (in a later scene) orchestrates Fleck to claim that his behaviour was a result of the lack of safety nets in society at large. This not only confuses viewers but portrays a divisive ideology with respect to the makers.
For all the neo-noir claims of treating the DC character’s origin story within the 70 mm framework, Joker was essentially a pipe dream that luckily got a lot of undeserved attention. For anyone with slightly higher cinematic standards, there is always Heath Ledger’s cynical smile in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.