It seems like we have been hearing about Joker forever. It’s rave reviews and wins at Toronto Film Festival began an ever increasing level of hype around this more mature origin story of Batman’s arch nemesis. A more recent wave of controversy has only made conversations more vocal and shrill. With that much anticipation it would difficult for any film to actually succeed at meeting al those expectations and yet superficially it all seems suitably stylish and horrific in its execution. Yet anything beyond surface impressions reveals much like the Wizard of OZ that behind the curtain is a certain shallowness and cruelty that is neither fun to watch nor thoughtful enough to say anything.
Arthur Fleck is a broken, bullied man whose job as a clown, only masks his real desire to make the world laugh as a stand up comic. His mental health deteriorates as his circumstances and obsessions take centre stage which lead to a growing frustration within him. When a co-worker gives him a gun to protect himself, opportunity allows him a chance to take back control in the most violent and horrific ways.
The character of the Joker in its very iterations on the big screen has been an iconic role that has garnered some amazing performances. Nicholson, Ledger, Hamill and now it would seem Joaquin Phoenix joins an ever growing list of stand out personification of this villain. It’s probably the most grounded and frightening, relatable yet macabre, bright yet filled with pain iteration of this character that has ever been filmed. And oh there is that deeply maniacal laugh. It’s one of the main reasons to see this film. Phoenix stands a good chance of Oscars contention.
Joker as a film oozes with style from its grimy city, to is use of big band music and it slightly soft-focus as if all this is a bad dream. Its use of the unreliable narrator makes it all the more disturbing and are compounded by the way violence just breaks out in a chaotic way. It all feels like a horror movie.
Yet if you take the time and you will after you’ve watched it, then you realise that despite all its style and wonderful central performance, it is actually a little dull. It seems a little bit hollow and nothing actually happens. In attempt to make Arthur sympathetic and the world around him oh so cruel they have simply made another piece of fantasy, albeit a disturbing and ultimately unnecessary one. We get moments of madness from Arthur but never an actual insight into what makes him tick.
You see, I didn’t personally find Arthur sympathetic because they never really give you anything to like to begin with. His mental health is just the same schlocky maniacal asylum cliché and thats how they introduce him. Also the world actually is so cruel that it kind deserves him. A point that the Joker makes in his TV appearance in the film’s finale. The film has drawn comparisons to Taxi Driver but in that grimy world there was still others beside Travis Bickle to care about. Here there is none of that, it is void of dark, a nihilistic nightmare.
There will be those who find Joker enthralling and I think there is probably a fairly decent counterargument to my review but ultimately this is a film set in a Batman universe. This might be a more interesting take in a non-comic world, but my question is what type of hero could actually clean up this world? Only perhaps, a maniacal clown. Then if this is a horror movie it lacks the fun you might have with a Jason or Michael Myers as they exact their macarbe version of justice. Rather it is just cruel, mob justice.
Not deep enough to be a compelling character study nor fun enough to be a comic horror film, Joker simply remains a technical and stylish origins story that adds little to the world of DC or to the cinematic world at large. A disappointment which offers superficial and questionable spectacle.