Joker is a mess that never gets a solid grasp on the material
by Chase Hutchinson
Leaving the theater upon seeing Joker there was one word that couldn't escape my mind: sense. The film is centrally built around trying to make sense of its world. There is the repeated line shown in Arthur's (the Joker in this adaptation) notebook about his hope that his death will make more sense than his life. I understand the intentions that the story had about Arthur's isolation and could see it desperately grasping at straws to convey them. Unfortunately, it didn't pull this off. The end result was instead a convoluted and unfocused narrative that kept losing track of where it was going. More frequently than not, I kept wondering what the point of every new development was. They would frequently be abandoned for less interesting or tedious developments. A hint about his fatherhood? It doesn't amount to anything. A relationship with a neighbor that feels strange? Vastly underdeveloped until it's completely yanked from the narrative. A connection to class discontent and an attempt to overthrow Gotham's elite rich? Kept in the background and even explicitly discounted as largely irrelevant.
Ostensibly, the film is yet another origin story about a well known and familiar character. The film is admirable in how it attempts to recontextualize aspects of a well-known character and is often worthy of this admiration. The details about the iconic laugh being something he can't control and how it often is actually the opposite of how he was feeling was a unique trait. However, when it becomes clear the origins behind that laughter and the fact that he is a vastly unreliable narrator, the film runs into some serious problems. It makes it almost impossible to trust anything that is being seen but rather than create an air of mystery, it removes any sort of engagement I could have had. Frequently, I just wondered why it would have this distrust for its character and often abandon some of the delusions he has rather than deconstruct the why behind all of them. I wouldn't think much on this (as the film doesn't either) until I was dropped into another sequence of events that would quickly get abandoned as well. It all felt incredibly out of touch and unwilling to deal with some of the deeper ideas that it introduces.
I won't wade into the discourse surrounding the director's intent, but it feels like the film is not at all interested in going deeper into the character's world. Phoenix is brilliant, but if you want to see a better portrayal of an isolated killer who seems to have some relatable core you should watch 2017's You Were Never Really Here which he is also in. That film is much more streamlined and disciplined in the story it tells. Joker is chaotic and not in a good way. It feels like it is desperately trying to express so much more but it keeps undercutting itself at every possible turn. For a film to have almost five B plots and leave it up to the audience to guess which one will end up being actually relevant is a mistake. It makes the film one that, especially in retrospect, has a shocking lack of emotional resonance. There is a good film in here, you just have to remove the other four that are jockeying to be the most important.
It didn't have to be this way
When I say that there is a good film in here, I genuinely mean that I see the potential. There are a lot of excellent elements to it. Besides Phoenix, who is almost always excellent, the score by Hildur Guðnadóttir is nothing short of spectacular. That she was a collaborator with the late Jóhann Jóhannsson came as no surprise as she has worked on some of the best scores of recent memory. In Joker, her work elevated every scene and honestly may have been the part that will have the most lasting impact on me. It was deceptive, complex, and beautifully ominous. Not since Mica Levi's score for 2016's Jackie has a musical score for a film caught me off guard like this. I genuinely wish that the scenes had been constructed in ways that let this score breathe a bit more and also didn't undercut it with other musical choices that felt vastly out of place. The scene that stood out from the trailer where Arthur is dancing on the giant staircase originally had a much more fitting musical accompaniment. In the actual film, it is paired with a song that was possibly the worst choice that could have been made. If Guðnadóttir's score had instead been used, the scene would have felt much more resonant and impactful. However, the way it ends up feeling is just strange and not in a good way. It feels like how Suicide Squad (the last time we had a Joker movie if it can be called that) put music over the top of scenes that were not anticipating the tone at all. It feels silly and out of place.
If the story had taken advantage of the talented elements in it then it would have been much more balanced. Phoenix simply cannot carry the entire film by himself especially when he has almost no foil. Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Marc Maron, and Brian Tyree Henry are all vastly underutilized. Obviously, the film wants to express his isolation and descent. It, therefore, makes sense that these characters wouldn't be present and a part of Arthur's life. However, they not only don't feel like characters, but they also don't feel like they have a point narratively. Everything just feels incredibly superficial and vapid in that degree. We don't know anything about these people save for that they are people who are just going around in the background. I haven't even mentioned the cops who repeatedly try to question Arthur, his various coworkers, or his relationship with Thomas Wayne who delivers such cartoonish monologues it is hard to take him seriously. The word nuance is something that is utterly absent from any of these characters. They all feel so shallow that I genuinely am struggling to remember anything about them or what they bring to the story. In a story where the character has such meaningless interactions for the majority of the film it genuinely makes it hard to understand what the point of any of it is.
The only things that could have brought some sense and purpose to the story is Arthur's relationship with his mother as well as the movement he has inspired. However, the story keeps his mother locked away past a certain point and doesn't flush out their bond sufficiently so that when their relationship takes a turn, it feels unearned. So that leaves Arthur's relationship to the movement that is going on in the background in the story. People in Gotham are disillusioned and frustrated with the world around them which makes them inspired by the symbol he takes on as the Joker. In many ways, Arthur speaks to some of their concerns. But when given the opportunity to make that a central part of the narrative and have him engage with it, the film pretty explicitly states that it has no interest in that dynamic of the story. I am all for having a lived-in world with dynamics that act as a setting but don't necessarily relate to the main story. However, this story seemed to want it both ways towards the end. Arthur discounts their goals at some moments and then makes statements that seem in line with them at others. The story needed a grounding point and this would have been it. Alas, it instead tried to follow way too many narrative strings at once and couldn't succeed at developing any of them.