“Joker” is a beautiful film with nothing to say

Jackson McMurray, Columnist

Like the red pill from “The Matrix” (1999) or Pepe the frog before him, the Joker is a piece of iconography with a troublesome recent past. Heath Ledger played the role in “The Dark Knight” (2008), and was so profoundly disturbed by the experience that he tragically overdosed during the film’s post production. Twelve people were killed at a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012) in Aurora, Colorado by a man who later told the police “I am the Joker.” More recently, the Joker has become an icon for anonymous online men on incel forums and alt-right websites. The Joker, as a toxic online symbol, has become powerful enough that people have started to take notice. 

Many on the internet have risen to meet this phenomena with memes at the expense of self-serious Joker fanatics. Putting the character underneath text espousing the profound importance of gaming ridicules the character’s popularity with devout gamergaters, and the phrase “we live in a society,” often paired with the clown in question’s visage, has become a shorthand for a statement that isn’t as profound as the speaker thinks it is. 

Enter Todd Phillips’ “Joker” (2019),  a self-serious Scorsese-esque tragedy about a deeply socially inept man who is driven to violence by his chronic exclusion. Ever since this movie debuted at the Venice Film Festival (where it won the Golden Lion), it has been the subject of intense controversy. Nearly across the board critics are impressed by the creative vision of the movie and Jaoquin Phoenix’s powerhouse performance, but to many in the context of our modern world the film seems, to put it mildly, in poor taste. In an age of 4Chan, incels and mass shooters, is a movie about an ostracized white man becoming a violent criminal dangerous? Or is it the movie we need?

“Joker” is a movie that absolutely deserves every praise that it’s been given. 

In terms of dialogue, tone, cinematography and performances it’s an absolute knockout. It’s powerful, it’s evocative, and it’s deeply unsettling in all the ways it wants to be. Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir delivers a mesmerizing score with very unique instrumentation, and cinematographer Lawrence Sher puts the whole thing in the most beautiful possible images. The lighting is colorful and always paints the title character with a sunken paleness, the camera hangs lovingly on his grotesquely slender body, highlighting and furthering the incredible work Phoenix is doing on screen.

And of course, the biggest talking point was always going to be the Joker himself. Jaoquin Phoenix’s take on the character is truly unique, which is impressive given that he’s working in the most over-crowded market of all fictional characters. His Joker, named Arthur Fleck, is oddly infantile. He speaks with a high voice, and with the vocabulary and inflection of a 10-year-old. When he’s happy he grins widely and without self-consciousness, but when he’s wronged he furrows his brow, confused by the harshness of the world. He feels stunted and deeply wounded, like a deer in life’s headlights. He is, first and foremost, a victim.

“Joker” feels like the strongest of all possible executions of writer/director Todd Phillips’ vision for the movie, an upsetting and harsh take on a classic character that has been pushing boundaries for years. But what is that vision exactly? Well, in the end it’s not much. 

 “Joker” is a movie that absolutely deserves every criticism that it’s been given. 

“The King of Comedy” is a Martin Scorcese picture from 1982, and if you’ve seen it before, you’ll find “Joker” to be a touch familiar. It’s the story of a socially inept amateur stand-up comic, who is obsessed with a popular talk show host. Without spoiling either movie too much, I’ll suffice it to say that the films are incredibly similar, for better or for worse. But a key difference between the two is that “The King of Comedy” is about celebrity obsession and the negative effect it can have on people, while “Joker” is about… well, not really anything.

Arthur Fleck is a victim of society, he’s been let down by  politicians, coworkers, citizens of Gotham, his social services case worker, and the women of the world who won’t give him attention (whatever that means). For the majority of the film, the violence caused by the joker is not the result of an evil man making evil decisions, but of a victim who has been tripped into horrible circumstances by a society that is out to destroy him. It takes a stance that reads “oh woe is us, if only the world were better, then bad things wouldn’t happen as much.”

 The title character has no agenda, no particular beliefs, but only pursues what is important to him in the moment, sewing discord and violence in his wake like a reverse Paddington. It takes place in a Gotham City that is riddled with crime, violence, disease and corruption. Against the backdrop of this comically miserable city, the Joker pits the wealthy self-centered elites of Gotham against the angry and violent masses, all while minding his own business, a move that seems to say not that there are good people on both sides, but rather that there are bad ones. 

If you were ever excited for this movie, you should see it. It delivers everything that it promises, and it’s a superhero blockbuster truly unlike anything a studio has ever produced. If you found yourself ambivalent during the marketing blitz, you’re probably okay. There’s nothing in this movie that will win over a cynic. 

But is the movie dangerous? For my money, no. Violence is a big complicated issue and can almost never be traced back to a singular source. Saying “Joker” will cause violence is comparable to saying that “Grand Theft Auto” will: maybe there will be some influence subconsciously, but for people who weren’t already poised to commit crimes, it’s perfectly safe. On the other hand though, saying it will be a cultural tentpole for incels, or a favorite conversation piece for insufferable dudes with “unpopular opinions” is a pretty safe bet. But for better or for worse, the movie is out there, and there’s nothing we can do about it now.  

  All I know for sure is that “Joker,” much like its title character states in the third act, doesn’t seem to believe in anything. It’s a deeply cynical movie with a harsh take on the world, but offers no solutions, or even reasons for why that could be. The movie is tragic, beautiful, suspenseful and evocative, but it’s not in service of any greater purpose. Todd Phillips truly put in the work to produce something strong and striking, but the result is still a movie that seems to posit nothing more than that we live in a society.