Toronto Film Festival: Joker Isn’t as Audacious as it Thinks It Is

Joker: Arthur putting on clown makeup
Joker leans into spectacles fitting for the clown prince of crime. But beyond the spectacle is a story that isn’t as audacious as it thinks it is.

There’s a laughable irony in how Todd Phillips’ Joker had many eyes (and controversy) surrounding it before it’s been released, considering its main character has a history of attention-seeking.

While sitting with his therapist, Arthur covertly praises himself over the murders he committed. “For my whole life, I thought I didn’t exist. But I do. And now they’re starting to notice,” he says with slight wonder.

In that aspect, the film doesn’t disappoint; leaning into spectacles fitting for the clown prince of crime. But beyond the spectacle is a story that just isn’t as audacious as it thinks it is.

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a man weighed down by the circumstances in his life: taking care of his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), working as a clown while trying to jumpstart his comedy career, and being bullied. He feels voiceless in the city of Gotham while those around him flourish. After a coworker gives him a gun with the advice to protect himself, Arthur feels empowered to take his destiny in his own hands – no matter how bloody they become.

Joker:  Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur laughs uncomfortably on bus

Image credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is disturbingly captivating as Arthur, sucking you in from the moment he’s on-screen. Like in his prior roles, he isn’t afraid to immerse herself in this character: he physically transforms to become gaunt and it works to draw concern for Arthur’s mental state. What’s particularly fascinating about Phoenix is how he essentially plays two characters in one - Arthur and Joker – and there are clear distinctions between the two. As Arthur, there’s a nervous tick to him and his voice is more soft and unsure. As Joker, he’s pure chaos, more confident and quicker to retaliate.  

The cinematography by Lawrence Sher further enhances Phoenix’s physical performance. Some of the more standout scenes is Arthur’s dancing; which typically happens pre-or-post a kill he’s going to commit. After his first kill, he dances – in celebration – in the bathroom, he’s hiding out in. Sher intensely focuses the camera on the expressiveness of Arthur: how he gracefully glides on the tile, how his neck leans back, the awkward movement of his arms. This is to show the gradual transformation of Arthur into Joker and how his body moves into it. It’s the extreme body shots throughout the film that reinforces Arthur’s decline into madness.

The cinematography and Phoenix’s acting functions, in a way, like clown paint: it’s all swirling colors and exaggerated shapes working to make the performer something special. But wash the paint off and what are you left with?

In Joker’s case, you have a story that fulfills the same “white man exacts revenge” trope as ones before it. This unofficial genre is nothing new: we’ve seen it in 1976’s Taxi Driver, 1983’s The King of Comedy (which Joker is clearly inspired by) and countless others.

The story beat is the same: white man is downtrodden. White man blames a person/group/society for his situation. Embittered, white man takes violent action. White man is a hero.

Joker: Arthur dressed as a clown dancing on stairs

Image credit: Courtesy of TIFF

The trope itself is worrisome and one that we don’t need more films adapting.

But there’s a level of self-importance Joker imposes– paired with this trope – that makes it feel even more unbearable.

As the director, Phillips has been insistent on how the goal was to do “…something entirely different from the comic book movies that have come before.” He’s even pitched a DC Black vertical to Warner Brothers: a darker, more grittier space for “independent-minded films about these characters.” There’s been so much investment in the film not becoming another comic book movie. So it’s hilarious that while Joker succeeded in avoiding the comic book trope, it dived fully into other tropes – losing the originality it was craving.

In this world that Joker created, Arthur is a symbol of revolution and change. You can see the parallels between this and the wave of “elevated” comic book films Phillips and his team want to create. There’s nothing wrong with telling personal spins on beloved superheroes and villains. When your script has gone down the beaten path – and offered nothing nuanced or unique – when is this change gonna come?

Joker desperately searches for something to make it distinctive - and it doesn’t succeed. 

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Joi Childs

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