In many of its seedy street side shots, Todd Phillips's Joker focuses on a theatre and clearly shows the titles playing. There is Zorro the Gay Blade, which came out in 1981, a time that seems closer to the mood this film is going for – the late 70s and impending Reagan era vibe of New York that it lends Gotham City. But the more interesting title it shows is probably Ace in the Hole.
Is it the Billy Wilder film? It's a film that hints at media manipulation and Joker insists on a kind of manipulation by everything from TV, press to upbringing and economic condition that drives Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) to become the murderous eponymous character.
Ace in the Hole was also one of Wilder's famous critical and commercial failures. Failure and rejection are important driving forces in this film that's more honest and focused on its visual splendour than it is on the condition and circumstances that create the space for a turn like that of Arthur Fleck's to Joker. Also, who refers to Harvey Dent as "ace in the hole"? Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight.
The Gotham City and its socioeconomic atrophy that writers Phillips and Scott Silver envision can come across as unconvincing and out of context. It talks of class issues but without clear markers for the oppression it wants us to zero in on.
In Joker's Gotham, what leads to widespread outrage and protests – against the ruling class – stands out like a non-sequitur that is insincere and unfunny. At least Christopher Nolan, in The Dark Knight Rises, spent time establishing the inequality and inequities of the state to create something that led to widespread discourse comparing the events in the film to the Occupy Wall Street movement. But in Joker, the public anger and resentment is flipped to favour Arthur Fleck's degeneration, sometimes offering it as valid justification, a conceit that is sure to be tone-deaf for the times we live in. In that regard, they don't shy away from turning the DC Comics world we know upside down.
It is intentional, Joker even subverts the comic canon in several ways that is sure to divide the audience. It is a bold choice to make and the film works in these moments when we don't see them coming. But there are also pivotal canonical moments that we do.
The visuals are closer to the DC Comics everyone is used to. There are only underbellies in Joker’s Gotham City. Arthur Fleck's home and apartment are in dim yellow, the make-up room of the place he is employed in is like an unattended basement and the subway stations are a rotten orange. Joker is an intense, claustrophobic experience where Phoenix's laugh is discomfiting and contagious. He doesn’t laugh at jokes; he maintains a straight face at them but keels over at otherwise serious moments. His illness manifests as laughter.
A laughter out of which, Phoenix somehow manages to conjure terror. Arthur Fleck's moments spent alone are always in closed-off tiny rooms that cause immense anxiety – what is he going to do next – like him playing with a gun in his living room or every time he is riding an elevator or entering/exiting one. Or him in front of a mirror in the green room reserved for extras. Phoenix's performance here is very reminiscent of his Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. No actor in recent times has used every pore in his face to deck up an expression as much as Phoenix does here and Arthur Fleck gives him ample scope to do just that.
Joker won the Golden Lion at Venice. The movie cannot be dismissed - considering the filmmaking - but the award decision is still a headscratcher, especially with the way the film is populated: depressed men (mostly white) prone to violent tendencies.
The film’s narrative is not only one-dimensional but also unreliable. Everything is designed to go against Fleck. His stand-up career is a failure, not because he is unlucky but because he is plain unfunny. He is mocked by a celebrity night show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) in one of his episodes. His girlfriend, also neighbour, played by Zazie Beetz, rejects him. But for good reason. He lives with an ailing mother with a troubled past.
In Phillips’s Joker, Thomas Wayne and aristocrats like him are the villains, forever extending the gap between the rich and the poor. In any other film, nobody would argue against this. But Joker’s arc skews so horribly in favour of the depressed white male figure belonging to the working class that all his acts are justified as a result of this status quo.
The film then gives way to a mental and moral bankruptcy where protestors take to the streets because of Fleck’s violent actions. It is one thing to argue for violent punching up the order but completely different, not to mention irresponsible, to train a gaze that validates anarchy as something that unites the masses.
Of course, Arthur Fleck's delusions and his delusional world finds new visual expression in Todd Phillips's film. In the film's third act, the Joker says, "It is exactly how I imagined it to be." A lot of people might say the same about the film but for very different reasons. If you really want to watch the working class taking on the Wall Street white collars, there is a better, more potent film in the theatres right now: it is called Hustlers.
Director: Todd Phillips
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Glenn Fleshler, Leigh Gill, Douglas Hodge, Josh Pais, Marc Maron, Sharon Washington, Brian Tyree Henry