The new Joker film again reimagines the much hated, yet beloved murderous clown of the Batman DC comics. Joker, now played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a tastelessly realistic depiction of a violent, unwell man. This depiction has artistic merit–some viewers may even enjoy the grime–but the overall cinematic experience suffers under a spell that is simply too dark.
The most salient feature of Phoenix’s depiction of this new Joker is his refusal to pull any punches. Jared Leto’s hilariously flawed portrayal of the same character was led astray by a proclivity for edgy showmanship and an almost pubescent sex drive for girlfriend Harley Quinn. Despite Heath Ledger’s talents, his Joker was thrown by a limiting portrayal of the character as mob-boss, a kind of organized mafioso in face paint. In the midst of (deserved) media backlash, Phoenix’s Joker is a villain borne out of poorly regulated mental health, social isolation, a proclivity for unsettling violence, and mad luck. Throughout the film, Phoenix grips onto one foundational decision again and again: to forgo all cinematic convention (i.e. watchability, humor, relatability…) in favor of brutal honesty.
Joker presents a man of two halves. Audiences will recognize one half, the one in which Joker presents as a confident, ruthless agent of chaos and death. This half is important to the mythos of the character, but 2019’s Joker focuses the larger part of its screen time on the villain’s other half. This new half is a pitiful, socially-inept creep who so severely lacks self-awareness that he feels he is an agent of altruism. Arthur Fleck, Phoenix’s Joker, references a “quote” from his mother: “She told me I had a purpose: to bring laughter and joy to the world.” It’s this earnestness and sincerity that makes Phoenix’s Joker truly uncanny. The film is quite literally hard to watch, as Fleck spends the runtime grasping feebly at his imagined compassion.
Joker becomes even more unpalatable with Phoenix’s constant laugh. Every good Joker has a good Joker laugh, the standard characteristics being a heightened pitch and manic energy. With the help of great writing, Phoenix again adds a twist: Joker’s laugh is painful. Fleck’s laughter is a symptom of his unnamed mental disorder; it comes across as a kind of “nervous laugh” cranked up to 11. Watching Phoenix laugh in Joker is like watching an asthma attack, thereby augmenting the general indigestibility of this entire movie.
Comorbid to the forced laughter is Phoenix’s Joker not being funny. This point cannot be stressed enough. Heath Ledger’s Joker of The Dark Knight produced a few genuine chuckles with his addition of goofy antics during tense situations, like when he frustratingly slaps at the unresponsive detonation device in the memorable “Hospital Scene.” Phoenix, however, is downright cringey. Several “jokes” of his throughout the movie include gesturing suicide in front of a child and honk-laughing before others’ punchlines.
Both his symptomatic laughter and bad sense of humor make Phoenix’s Joker an even deeper perversion of the clown archetype. Again, Phoenix leans into brutal honesty; an isolated and failed standup comedian is a recipe not for a funny clown but for an incel-like chaos agent.
Without spoiling particulars, the ending of the film suggests that Fleck comes to accept his dark side. This would-be cathartic conclusion is skewed by Phoenix’s ability to internalize his character’s “altruistic half,” resulting in the audience’s inability to shake the polarized energy of this new Joker. In effect, Phoenix embodies so many of the Joker’s disturbing characteristics that audiences leaving the theater feeling a bit sick; here we have a Joker who is more truthful than ever, but, with so many cinematic conventions broken, it comes at the price of the palatability of the movie as a whole.