Ironically enough, a film about the clown prince of crime is director Todd Phillips’ first dive into drama. His recent lineup of work is comprised of comedies like The Hangover franchise and War Dogs, but looking back at his earliest work, it’s obvious that Phillips has merely come full circle. Phillips kicked off his film career with a documentary about GG Allin, a notoriously controversial punk artist, and having seen Joker it becomes apparent that he has a fascination with violent men. Joker is a character study focused on Arthur Fleck’s (Joaquin Phoenix) miserable descent into becoming the iconic villain. It checks all the award season boxes — incredible lead actor, score, and cinematography. However, it’s difficult to praise Joker without acknowledging that the plot is a victim of its obsession with glorifying the actions of its main character.
Joker is unsettling from beginning to end, and this is in no small part due to its lead actor. It’s a delight watching Phoenix make the most innocuous actions, like laughing and dancing, disturbing. The supporting cast is just as talented — Frances Conroy is excellent in the role of Fleck’s senile mother and Zazie Beetz deserves an award just for being able to act like someone could actually be attracted to Phoenix’s joker. Yet as talented as the cast is, Joker is plagued by so many unlikeable characters. Even characters who should serve as Fleck’s foil, like Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), behave in a detestable manner. This lack of “good guys” is symptomatic of the film’s larger problem — Phillips’s need to create a sympathetic Joker.
Phillips surrounds Arthur Fleck with characters who ridicule and brutalize him, in turn justifying his horrific actions. In fact, Joker is more fun when Fleck acts horribly for no reason other than he enjoys wreaking havoc. But those moments are few as Joker tries to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of poverty and alienation. This backfires because Phillips is far too concerned with dragging out glorified violent sequences for shock value. Instead of providing social commentary or giving the Joker a fun origin story, the movie seems to be more of an exploration of Phillips’s worrying interest in hyper-violent men.
All this is not to say that Joker is a bad movie; in fact, it’s very well-made. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher captures a moody and atmospheric Gotham. Shots of Joaquin Phoenix dancing around in dirty apartments and getting into trouble around the city are hypnotizing. These shots paired with Hildur Guðnadóttir’s tense score make for a stunning movie. And as mentioned, when Phillips isn’t trying to convince viewers that they should be feeling bad for Fleck, the character regains some of the enigmatic charm that makes him such a great villain in the first place. Joker could have been a great movie if it lightened up a little. Instead, it does a really good job of justifying the actions of a violent loner, and occasionally glorifying them too.
Valerie Lopez is a film intern who loves hearing herself talk about movies almost as much as watching them.