Illustration by Liene Magdalēna

Joker: High on Histrionics, Low on Substance

The sensation is artfully constructed, but I couldn’t help but feel the absence of something substantial to chew on.

Oct 5, 2019

Editor’s note: This article contains explicit language.
At one point in Joker, two of Arthur Fleck’s (Joaquin Phoenix) old colleagues pay him a visit at home. One of them (Glenn Fleshler) has previously wronged him, and the other (Leigh Gill) is a kind-hearted dwarf. Within moments, Fleck barbarically stabs Fleshler multiple times, splattering blood everywhere. Terrified, Gill trudges towards the door. We are almost relieved. But it is latched from high up, so he cannot reach it to leave, forcing him to ask the deranged face-painted psychopath for help. With utmost banality, Fleck stands up, opens the door for Gill and gently kisses him on the forehead.
This scene is so cleverly crafted that it completely controls our psyche in the moment. The stabbing feels visceral, and Fleck’s lunacy palpable. Amidst all this, director Tod Phillips toys with us by giving a glimpse of his comic prowess, which is so impeccably timed that we can’t help but let out a guilt-ridden chuckle.
There is a lot to appreciate about Joker: Phoenix’s absolutely immersive performance, a consistently terrific musical score and masterful camera work. These elements teleport you straight into Fleck’s maniacal mind and make the film so disturbing that it leaves a lasting impression on the viewer. But within this sensation, I couldn’t help but feel the absence of something substantial to chew on.
Joker is meant to be an origin story, exploring how Fleck transforms from a well-meaning mentally-ill loner to the embodiment of evil and anarchy. To be fair, there are some genuinely interesting moments along the way, particularly, for instance, the first time Fleck fires a gun by accident in his apartment. Completely overwhelmed by this weapon, he is utterly intoxicated by the power it gives him.
But other than a few revelations here and there, the narrative is largely one-note and predictable. Everyone is just downright awful to him. We get little to no insight about any of the other characters, most of whom are reduced to mere props to reflect Fleck’s journey into madness. This black and white approach to Joker’s life not only makes the plot shallow and uninteresting, but also makes for problematic messaging. By forcing us to view everything through his problematic gaze of self-pity and persecution, the film risks seeming like a justification of his turn to violence.
Maybe I was expecting too much depth. It is a part of the DC universe, after all. But Joker is anything but a feel-good, entertaining superhero movie. Neither high on CGI, nor adrenaline-inducing action, the film also deviates from a DC comic book setting, making 1970s and 80s Gotham city a dystopian mirror of New York. It also invokes intertextual references to Scorsesse’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Within this tonality and sense of realism lies a promise to be genuinely profound, one that Joker does not fulfill.
What made Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight all the more compelling was his juxtaposition to Batman. The conflict between Batman’s righteous commitment to order and duty and the Joker's seemingly mindless penchant for anarchy made the narrative utterly engaging and thought-provoking. In Joker, however, there is neither a counter-balance, nor a nuanced internal conflict within Fleck’s mind: just a simplistic person versus society narrative, wherein everything in the world against him and society is horrible.
While I don’t think the film outrightly glorifies the Joker, it lends him the kind of sympathetic, victimizing gaze that is deeply unsettling. Not only is Fleck in almost every frame, but the camera also feels entirely obsessed with him and his lunacy. The film is inundated with intimate close ups and long continuous shots that take us deep into Fleck subconscious. Add to this the simplistic causality of how Fleck becomes the Joker and all you have is Phillips’ unapologetic indulgence in this absurdly evil character. It’s brilliantly executed, but to what end?
The Joker may be a fictional character, but the concept—of a white man with a severe mental illness and a well-founded persecution complex resorting to extreme violence—is all too real. So, when you choose to make a film exploring the origins of what creates such a reprehensible character, the stakes are automatically high. Joker is already being called the most divisive film of the year. Theaters have [banned](( viewers from dressing up with clown make-up to see it.
Joker is no doubt genuinely seductive and artfully crafted. It delivers its promise of providing an immersive experience of maniacal psychopathy. But it gets so caught up in the artistic trickery involved in creating this experience that it flounders when it comes to actually saying something relevant about it. And the tragedy is that there was abundant scope while exploring Fleck’s disenfranchisement: mental health issues, childhood abuse, social inequality, political corruption and so much more.
“What do you get when you cross a mentally-ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” Fleck screams at the end of the film. “I’ll tell you what you get, you get what you fucking deserve!”
I don’t know about you, but I think we deserve a better explanation than that.
Kaashif Hajee is Managing Editor. Email him at
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