Review: Joker – Text vs. Texture
In an article that tries to find out why two people can watch the same movie and come away with entirely different perceptions, writer Film Crit Hulk claims that there are two sides to filmmaking that are equally important, but which we do not value in the same way. On the one hand, he says, there is “text”, which is the drama, the script, the theory of a movie; on the other, there is “texture”, the execution, the look, the “feel” of cinema. Ideally, films are a symbiosis of the two pillars working in tandem; but, as Hulk points out, many recent movies try to get away with just using texture as a means to an end, that “films think they can just show you the little texture of sadness and that’s good enough—that you get it like it’s mathematical “information””, without actually putting in the leg work of having a proper, solid structure. To put it bluntly, many films are lazy and dysfunctional while maintaining an appearance of drama, quality, and importance.
So let’s talk about Joker.
At the point of writing, Todd Phillips’s 2019 film Joker is, with a total cume of $1.071 billion, not only the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time, but also among the 35 highest-grossing films ever, worldwide. It has been celebrated by critics and audiences alike, garnered a leading eleven nominations at this week’s Academy Awards, and is practically sure to win lead actor Joaquin Phoenix his long-coveted Oscar. This comes on the back of a comparatively small budget of around $60-70 million, with the film being projected to change the face of comic book movies to come. Joker has been obscenely successful. And yet, I think it is a bad and extremely misguided film.
The aim of this review is not to condescendingly tell people why they fell under this movie’s spell, to open people’s eyes and reveal that “actually, it sucks”. But with a movie that so strongly attempts to achieve a certain importance, a certain appearance, it is inevitable that it is going to fail in that attempt for some audience members, me among them. And especially in times where the Academy’s bad choices often outweigh their occasionally great ones, in times where adult dramas are continually disappearing from cinemas, I think it is crucial to understand what Joker is actually doing – and why that question matters, because it is harder to answer than it initially seems.
In 1980s Gotham City (a thinly veiled New York City), Arthur Fleck is a struggling stand-up comedian who works as a clown-for-hire and cares for his elderly mother. Arthur, with his oily, ash-colored hair and awkward gait, seems to be predestined for an outcast role even before you are introduced to his fits of involuntary laughter. These uncontrollable seizures alienate him further from other people, even when he hands them a laminated card explaining his condition. To make things worse, Arthur’s psychiatric counseling as well as his medication treatment are cancelled as a result of city-wide austerity measures. Increasingly desperate, Arthur’s life takes a dark turn when he is attacked by three Wall Street bankers on the subway: killing the first two in self-defense and murdering the remaining man in cold blood, Arthur begins a spiral of violence and anarchy that eventually leads him to assume the alter ego of the Joker.
Joker is obsessively invested in infusing every frame of its runtime with the unshakable impression that this is not your average comic book movie, no, this is important. Owing heavily to Martin Scorsese movies that were released around Joker’s setting, such as Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy, Phillips’s film strikes you with its grainy, yet rich 70mm images, the muted colors of its period costumes, and Hildur Guðnadottir’s oppressive, droning cello score that often feels like Bernard Hermann’s music for Taxi Driver with the intensity turned up to eleven. Phoenix inhabits Arthur’s skin with a similar fearlessness as Robert de Niro did in his early roles, never shying away from the character’s dark places (of which there are many), and turns the oft-portrayed Joker into a graceful, dancing agent of anarchy. However, for all the possible ambivalence and ambiguity the movie could conjure up, it feels remarkably hesitant to let the audience make up their own minds about Arthur and his fate. An early scene on the bus features him in an uncomfortable confrontation with another passenger, repeatedly undercut by Arthur’s uncontrollable laughter. But rather than letting us sit out the discomfort in order to let us reflect on our reaction, Phillips is quick to bring in the score, telling us that this scene is definitely sad. This sets the tone for the rest of the movie, in which the camera, even in Arthur’s greatest moments of “triumph”, makes sure to frame him in Dutch angles to let the audience know to read this scene as weird, definitely weird, never mind the fact that the film is gleefully using these moments as spectacle.
But this is merely the texture that I was talking about earlier. What about the actual heart of the film, the characters, the drama, the themes? What is this movie saying?
Everything and nothing, really. The aforementioned hesitancy to commit to any stance continues throughout the entire film and is already embedded into its screenplay. Considering the topical political events the movie draws on – austerity, poverty, social isolation – it seems obvious that Joker will be making some larger point even before we are introduced to Thomas Wayne, this movie’s stand-in for Donald Trump (as well as Batman’s father), and the angry, Antifa-inspired mob of protesters that forms as a response to his plans of running for mayor. It seems inevitable that these things are commented on in some way, but again and again, Joker refuses to position itself in any meaningful fashion. When violent riots break out near the films climax, the movie tries to simultaneously frame this as the rich and condescending Wayne’s just deserts as well as the bloodthirsty protesters’ only desire, with the main character almost comically claiming to be apolitical. Joker gestures towards relevant themes without ever properly engaging with them, the cinematic equivalent of someone holding their finger right before your face and proclaiming, “I’m not touching you!” The only discernible ‘message’ the film carries is one of compassion for outsiders, as Arthur’s descent is shown to be a result of social irresponsibility and neglect; but not only is “be nice to everyone or they might violently murder you” not exactly something you want to be caught saying when incels are a thing that exists, the message is also undercut in one of Joker‘s key scenes, when Arthur refuses to kill one of his former co-workers for being a fellow outcast while the film plays the man’s dwarfism for laughs.
Director Todd Phillips clearly mines Scorsese for visual references but seems to have missed the moments in the latter’s movies where they refuse to take the main character’s side, where the camera takes on a personality of its own, where they complicate the story’s morality. Taxi Driver is crystal clear where Joker is murky; Joker tries to moralize where other, smarter movies instead embrace their flawed protagonists without infantilizing the audience (Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, which also stars Phoenix, comes to mind, as does the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems). Maybe I shouldn’t expect the director of the Hangover trilogy to be able to handle complex, possibly dangerous material, but if this is the kind of movie Phillips attempts to make, he should look beyond his idols’ texture. Taking on a movie like Joker takes bravery, but pulling it off successfully takes craft, clarity, and control far greater than this film ever has. Looking like Scorsese is easy, actually being Scorsese is hard.
Claudius was listening to the Uncut Gems soundtrack by Daniel Lopatin while writing this review.
Edit: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported Joker‘s gross as $1.701 billion.