Todd Phillips has made a career out of pushing boundaries. His first film Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies, a documentary filmed while he was still a student at NYU, chronicles the heinous exploits of the notorious East Village punk-rocker in striking detail. Throughout the film, we see Allin inciting riots, defecating and urinating on himself and others, launching his own feces at audience members, mutilating his body onstage, and spouting out racist, misogynistic, and homophobic lyrics. It seems as though Allin has had a profound impact on the rest of Phillips’ work, and we can trace elements of Allin’s extreme performance art in most all of Phillips’ films.
Although they are separated by nearly three decades, Joker and Hated share much of the same DNA. Both Allin and Arthur Fleck (brought to life by a ferociously unsettling performance from Joaquin Phoenix) are products of abusive upbringings; both suffer from severe personality disorders; and both channel a violent internal character as a form of self expression. Allin frequently performs naked or in drag, while Fleck transforms into the infamous Joker with his face makeup and purple suit. Even their motivations mirror each other; Allin and his bandmates explain their hyper-aggressive performance style in the documentary as a reflection of a “society that’s going crazy with violence.” Allin details a plan to commit suicide on-stage during a show on Halloween night (although the plan is never followed through) as a sort of final statement against the confines of a society that has largely viewed him as waste. Arthur Fleck is a perfect embodiment of Allin’s ideology in Joker. The film’s opening scene shows Fleck, a for-hire clown, chasing a group of young boys who have stolen the wooden sign he had been twirling outside a storefront. He follows the boys into a derelict alleyway in a gritty version of Gotham City that is overflowing with trash and rodents. Fleck is then bashed over the head with the sign, beaten, and left laying among the garbage. As the title card superimposes onscreen over a battered and bloodied Fleck, we come to understand him the same way we understand Allin in Hated; as discarded, abandoned, and left to fend for himself. “Is it just me, or it it getting crazier out there?” Fleck probes his social worker in a direct echo to Allin. Soon, the character of Arthur Fleck gives way to “Joker” who becomes a vehicle for Fleck’s madness. There is another callback to Allin when Joker rehearses a plan to commit suicide in front of a live audience when he is invited by host Murray Franklin (played by Robert DeNiro) to appear on his late-night show. Like Allin, Joker ultimately does not go through with his plan; but instead resorts to something far more sinister.
Joker’s murderous rampage in the film’s final act, beginning with the slaying of his former co-worker in his apartment and culminating in the assassination of Murray Franklin and subsequent City Hall riot, is one of the most exhilarating sequences to appear in a major-studio movie in years. The violence is raw and incendiary. Phoenix is explosive and charismatic — recalling shades of Peter Finch in Network and Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. Lawrence Sher, in career best work as a cinematographer, evokes the film’s clear tonal and filmic influences (Serpico, Taxi Driver) with gorgeous dimly lit scenes, an array of creative dutch angles and overhead shots, and a handheld aesthetic that ominously looms around Phoenix’s every move. Joker certainly looks like a great film. It also has the performances of a great film; Zazie Beetz is given virtually nothing by the script but glows with authenticity as Fleck’s neighbor; and Bryan Tyree Henry, in a role that could almost be considered a cameo, is perhaps the most overqualified actor to play “Hospital Clerk” in movie history. Yet, while Phillips has crafted the outer shell of a wonderful film, it becomes increasingly clear that the shell is hollow.
In presenting the vile, bigoted, and violent actions of GG Allin, Phillips seems at best indifferent towards them; and at worst, infatuatedly admiring of them. “I don’t know if GG was born this way, or if society created him, but I do know that the Murder Junkies and their fans are exceptional,” he claims in the prologue of Hated. Phillips does not necessarily know what to make of Allin; and he clearly does not know what to make of Arthur Fleck. There are multiple ways to read this film in regards to its politics. Was Fleck, as a severely mentally ill man, always predisposed to violent behavior? Was Fleck molded into a killer by abuse and neglect from his family and society at large? Are we supposed to sympathize with a mass murderer who is shown to have a propensity for stalking women? While I do not believe that Phillips made this film to overtly condone and glorify violence; I also do not believe he had the slightest inclination of what the ramifications of the film might be. On the one hand, we see the way in which Phillips wants us to understand the ways that society denies help to and/or places stigma upon mental illness; but on the other hand, Phillips is essentially re-enforcing this exact stigma by turning his mentally ill character into a murderous agent of chaos.
Yet, we have seen this sort of irresponsibility before. Take Phillips’ follow-up to Hated — the 1998 documentary Frat House. Having begun with the goal of exposing the ugliness of extreme fraternity life, Phillips and his co-workers were later accused of trying to pass off re-enactments of pledge hazing as real events, or falsifying much of the events altogether. He also helped usher in a new era of comedy to the 21st century with films like Old School and the Hangover that are known for their explicit vulgarity, nudity, and shock-gags. We see a continuation of this brand of comedy in Joker, with multiple scenes and bits of comedic relief coming at the expense of a character in the film who is a little person. There is overwhelming evidence in his past work to suggest that Phillips has an obsession with an “edginess” in his craft — and not for any particular reason, or to illuminate any truth about society. It is bombastic and often maddeningly tone-deaf filmmaking for the sake of looking cool or pushing boundaries.
One of the strongest indicators that Phillips is making filmic choices that are more guided by a perception of “coolness” as opposed to moral or thematic truths is his use of music in Joker. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s beautifully harrowing score is often the backdrop to the most indulgent of scenes in the movie. The most prominent instance of this technique is after Fleck murders for the first time and flees to a grungy nearby bathroom. The score’s somber cello piece serves as the music for an otherwise silent dance that Fleck does that the camera holds on for about 90 seconds longer than it ought to. It is a sort of art-house-adjacent scene that Phillips has weaved into a film that he crams with too many pastiches to fit. To understand how willing Phillips is to overlook the problematic aspects of his film, we must juxtapose the high-brow sensitivity of the bathroom dancing scene with the hyper-masculine adrenaline rush of the final act. After Joker commits his second murder, he heads to the towering staircase below his apartment complex that features prominently in the film. He once again begins to dance, this time in stylized slow-motion and full clown makeup over the song “Rock & Roll Part II” by convicted pedophile Paul Francis Gadd (aka Gary Glitter). The entire sequence fetishizes the Joker in a way that makes him feel cathartic to us. The ultimate catharsis eventually comes when Joker assassinates Murray on live television as he yells (in one of the most bluntly on-the-nose evocations of theme I can remember), “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? You get what you f***ing deserve!” It seems outlandish to suggest that Phillips too would believe that Murray “deserves” to be shot — or that it is justified in general for Joker to incite the sort of chaos and violence that he does upon Gotham at large. However, the very next shot we see is of a police car driving Joker through downtown Gotham where they have clearly adopted his message. Outside the car is utter mayhem and apocalyptic level revolts – all scored by Cream’s classic-rock hallmark “White Room.” The camera shots are neon, reflective, and pristine. The music is blaring and badass. This is just what Phillips wants. Madness. Anarchy. It looks cool — like GG was. As in his other films, Phillips is making a statement; except he is not actually saying anything.
All of this is not to say that Joker is an objectively bad film. Its script is problematic and often overly-simplistic or clunky; but the film itself is quite impressive. The final 30 minutes undoubtedly will contain some of the most jaw-dropping, well-executed, and electrifying moments of cinema in any film this year. Phoenix’s chillingly frail and mutilated physicality, youthful desperation, and unsettlingly precise mannerisms make Arthur and Joker feel sympathetic and genuine to us even at the expense of our own morality. His characteristically committed performance should be touted as nothing short of a marvel. In fact, this film’s existence is nothing short of a marvel. Warner Brothers should be commended for having the guts to take this risk; and Phillips should be as well for being brave enough to take on some of the most iconic intellectual property of the last century. However, irrespective of its socio-political implications, the film’s fundamental issue is that it does not truly work within its comic book confines. The canonical Batman elements of the film really do not have a necessary place. The movie would probably work better if you change the characters names from “Wayne,” call it New York City instead of Gotham, and cut the 10 minutes or so of obligatory Batman lure. Perhaps the most dynamic and intriguing aspect of the Killing Joke version of the Joker character that both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan drew upon for their representations is that his past is “multiple choice;” it is ever-changing — left up to our imaginations. By giving the Joker a backstory, Phillips is, in a way, betraying one of the most fundamental aspects of the character. Although, the argument can be made that Arthur Fleck is not even the Joker. With how severely crippled Fleck is by his mental condition, it is far fetched to believe that he would have the intellectual capacity to become the criminal mastermind and escape artist that we know the Joker to be, let alone live and function independently. Additionally, a conceit established in the film is Arthur’s propensity for daydreaming, and his inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. By showing Fleck locked up in Arkham Asylum in the final scene, perhaps we are to believe that the events of the film were all in his head. Or even if they really did happen, now that Arthur is locked up, maybe the Joker that we know from the comics is born out of one of the Gotham residents who was inspired by Fleck’s acts.
Joker is a problematic film. It is barely a comic book film. It is astonishing that it was allowed to be made — and that it wound up as interesting a film as it is. We should be happy that this film has forced us to engage in conversation. Mr. Phillips made his statement, even if he cannot exactly answer for it, so we are left to draw meaning from it ourselves. We should be happy that a film like this exists. And we should be happy that artists and studios are allowed to take risks; I am just not sure that this was the risk worth taking.