Evil is a concept hard for films to properly discuss. For a film to succeed in having an evil main character you need two things. Firstly, the protagonist needs to walk the line between sympathy and empathy from the audience, and secondly, (but most importantly) the film needs to have each action taken by the ‘hero’ feel justified in the eyes of the viewer. If the audience cannot understand why someone is doing something, they will not have any reason to accept that person doing that thing.
Joker, unfortunately, has neither of these qualities, and thus its ridiculous and clumsy political statement falls completely flat.
The film disregards all previous information we had about Joker (but not the world he inhabits) and jumps into it pretty quick. The Joker is now Arthur Fleck, a nobody comedian with a condition that causes him to laugh every so often for no reason. The film trundles along with increasing acts of violence from murdering someone behind a bin, to bringing a gun into a hospital (it’s never revealed why) until eventually he’s attacked up by a group of businessmen on a subway who he kills in self defence.
Through all of this violence it almost seems that Todd Phillips is using violence for the sake of violence, and it seems to serve no narrative or character motivations. Violence can be an effective tool in film, but these seemingly random examples spread chaotically throughout the film ultimately leads to a protagonist that the audience has no possible chance of understanding.
There is some plot, don’t get me wrong. It’s just none of it seems necessary. We find out that his mum believes that Thomas Wayne, Batman’s father, is also Arthur’s. He’s not. Arthur then murder’s his mother, and blames it on the hospital shes in. And then, in an example of the film forgetting when it’s set, Murray Franklin’s (Robert De Niro) TV show gets a hold of a copy of Arthur’s comedy routine and airs it, which eventually leads to him being invited onto the show.
The problem is, none of the scenes make any logical reason to be next to each other or not. If the film had all of its moments jumbled up and reconfigured, it would make the same amount of sense, and the film wouldn’t really be impeded in any way.
The film continues on its merry way, talking of upper class/working class divides, and public uprisings based on Arthur’s attack. I won’t spoil too much of the film, as you’ll probably end up watching it one day, but as the film trundles along, we learn two things about Arthur. He’s had a history of mental health issues, and that he had an abusive upbringing.
And as we learn these things, the film makes every attempt to get us to sympathise with the Joker, and to understand why he acts the way he acts. And for the moment, it seems like that’s fine. It is when the film uses this history of mental illness and abusive childhood to explain and justify everything Arthur does that I begin to disagree.
The film believes that it is making some statement about how an uncaring society mixed with a character like Arthur leads to atrocities. But instead, what it actually says is that it’s totally fine to harm people, so long as you’ve been treated badly at some point in your life. Which is a very dangerous statement to say. It is blatantly untrue, and with a mentality like that, it could continue a vicious cycle. There are many people who have been treated badly in this life, many of them by people like Arthur Fleck, and I dare say that of those people, few have been driven to extreme acts that he had.
Importantly, the film ends with Joker, as he is now known, winning, and achieving his goals, which then surely also contradicts the messages of the film, by showing that if you do terrible things, your life will become better, (as it did for Mr Fleck). Todd takes so much time engineering the plot to fit his iffy political statements, that he completely forgets about the main focus of the story, otherwise known as the protagonist.
Speaking of, Joaquin Phoenix gives a great performance, considering the clunky script, and vague character motivations. He elevates the film beyond the incredibly messy picture it could have been in the hands of a lesser actor, to a tolerable film with a good lead. I have always thought that Phoenix really shines in quieter roles, such as in 2017’s ‘You Were Never Really Here’ and 2013’s ‘Her’, when he can show us a range of emotions in a single expression, as opposed to one with a laugh.
Altogether, the film doesn’t fit right. It’s more like a collection of scenes that share the same characters, but don’t lead from one to the next. It’s almost episodic in nature, except that it happens in too short a space of time. It feels as if Phillips had heard that gritty comic-book films were a thing now, and he put on together with slightly misshapen pieces, and no instruction manual. My advice? Stay at home and watch Taxi Driver. It’s also got Robert De Niro.