Similarities conjoin the subjects of Todd Phillips' debut film (Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies) and his most recent, Joker. Allin was an agitative outcast who violated both himself and others. His striking image was no costume — rather his own sickly marrow surfaced and slathered over flesh. He engaged in suicidal ideations, with a long-term desire to commit suicide on stage. Allin's art and on-stage persona accrued a following of social lepers and self-described scumbags who, through him, lived a form of vicarious rebellion. 'He's doing something,' spoke a Hated talking head, 'a lot of people wish they had the fuckin' balls to do.'
A palpable fear stalked the U.S. release of Joker. The site of 2012's Aurora theatre shooting refused to screen the film, and security tightened in cinemas across the country. Copycats seemed poised to pounce. But in places where mass shootings are not treated like societal punctuation, tensions simmered far lower. Joker is an incendiary and ambiguous film. But, like Allin, it is too nihilistic and obscene to incite violent action. At worst, it permits space for unwholesome fantasies. But really, it's a pussycat — any fear-mongering you may have read is baseless and idiotic.
So where does discomfort surrounding Joker come from? Previous treatments tendered an amoral, symbolic force. Through Heath Ledger's cracked lips the Joker once said, 'I just do things.' Joaquin Phoenix's read, by contrast, is a character whose unsound means serve sane motivations. Audiences must reckon with their own immoral wants and uncomfortable complicity. But all Joker really does is provide the character with hitherto absent motivation and depth. It doesn't feed you the manifesto of a mass shooter.
Yes, Arthur Fleck is a beat-down, luckless dope transformed and made whole through violence. But Phillips' script muddies the specifics of Fleck's past, and refuses to pin his transgressions on one cause. All that's clear is that Fleck is selfish, embittered and apolitical. This is the story of one individual self-actualising. In buoyant scenes Arthur dances and applies makeup to embody his own anima. But when the film depicts his other triumphs, it is in an ironic and uncomfortable mode.
Arthur’s journey is, underneath it all, tragic. He attributes his sorry lot to the wrong victims. He acts in rash confusion and rage. And he misidentifies short-term bursts of bloody gratification as his life's zenith. The film's coda suggests a return to violence — all he has divined is how to scratch an itch that will now forever return.
Where Joker stumbles is in its integration of existing comic-book lore. In Arthur's world, Batman seems a preposterous concept. The Wayne family's few scenes are without exception jarring, and occupy time which would have better served Robert De Niro's interesting-but-underwritten Murray Franklin. It's small-fry, though, for a film which is subtler, smarter and more artful than many would have you believe.
Words by Andrew O’Keefe