We Discuss Todd Phillips' Polarising Joker, a Movie With Little to Say

By Gizmodo on at

What do you get when a multi-million dollar corporation decides to capitalise on one of its most popular characters by centring them in a movie that taps into conversations about white domestic terrorism in the United States, incels, and the ways in which folks with mental illnesses are often abandoned by society? You get films like Todd Phillips’ Joker, apparently.

Charles Pulliam-Moore: So. Let’s talk about this piece of cinema that’s had everyone very, very deeply in their feelings as of late. I’m curious to hear from y’all what you, I guess, came to the cinema expecting given how there was already so much Discourse™ before most of us actually had a chance to see it. I feel like we all joked at one point or another that we were surprised it wasn’t actually out because literally everyone had a take prepared.

Germain Lussier: I had the opposite experience, Charles. I was fortunate enough to see the movie before it played any film festivals. There was just like the general positive buzz which, frankly, was surprising. And as I watched it I was captivated by it. I was interested in this character and this world and then things just started to feel wrong. Like, I was feeling for this person? And this person is doing what now? So ultimately I walked out conflicted but more or less positive simply because I like when a movie makes me think or shift gears while I’m watching it. I just felt like, for a movie that’s trying to say so much, it really doesn’t end up with one dominant theme.

Charles: 👀

James Whitbrook: Hahaha, I think that was a similar case for me – the sheer density of discussion coming into this movie ahead of release, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. And that’s kind of what I got leaving the cinema? I still have no idea what I watched. There is just so much going on in this movie – so much trying to go on in this movie, rather – that I don’t know what it said when it wasn’t bludgeoning conflicting messages over your head several times over. I didn’t enjoy it, but I can’t really say “Oh I hated what it had to say” or something, because…I still don’t think it actually succeeded in saying anything.

Autumn Noel Kelly: I walked into the cinema with a bad feeling and left with that same bad feeling. I actually really enjoy films where I walk out thinking, “What just happened? I need to sit in silence and really process this.” I did not want to think and process this film. There was a dominating theme for me, and that was the feeling that the filmmakers didn’t really know what they wanted their movie to say. Instead, it felt like they were hiding behind the definition of a “character study” and using that as an excuse to not talk about strong messages that were clearly there.

Germain: That’s interesting. We basically all agree that the movie didn’t really have anything to say. My argument is that it tried to say too much and failed but either way, we seem more or less in agreement. I wonder then, did my positive spin come because I saw it before the weight of all its social and political implications came reigning down? Or am I just more the target audience, if there is one?

Charles: I mean. Yes, Germain. It’s ok to be a straight white guy and say you like things that non-straight white guys don’t. But you have to be able to explain why you like the thing when it comes to something like Joker, and honestly, I’ve yet to hear any particularly convincing defenses of the movie either from the fans or anyone who’s worked on it.

I think you’re right about the movie trying to take on too much and ultimately failing to adequately examine anything, but I’ve been thinking a lot about Phillips’ going on the press circuit to talk about how his plan was always to make a character study film that wouldn’t have been possible to get greenlit without the comic book trappings. Without the DC larger than life fate the Joker has, what is this movie about, really? Arthur’s a mentally-ill, depressed man who ends up taking his rage out on a bunch of random people, and by the end of the film he’s a folk hero. If Batman isn’t what this film’s building toward, the Joker never becomes a supervillain. He’s just a terrorist and the movie really wants you to like him. I just can’t fuck with that.

Germain: Yeah, I totally see your point. And I will try to defend what I can (I also wrote a whole review on this, click here to read it, but for the sake of our discussion, paraphrase incoming!) but before that, I think maybe you’re getting a tiny bit wrapped up in Phillips’ quotes. I think this is a Joker origin story. Period, and for better or for worse. So the “goal” of it is to justify something. What? I’m not sure, and that’s where our feelings start to line back up. I don’t know what the point is. I do think Arthur is a dangerous anti-hero. I also think Phoenix’s performance, the film’s locations, settings, costumes, music, it’s a very expertly crafted movie that creates a very interesting world. And in that world, exploring someone, that’s what I liked about it. Trying to solve the puzzle. I just don’t think there is a solution. It’s a mirror on its audience and that’s kind of lazy.

Autumn: Phoenix is a very good actor and I think if you get caught up in his performance, it would be easy to disregard some of the wilful blindness in the script. At first, I did. I actually thought the story was being deliberately evasive and thought the film was going to grow with the character. I feel like Joker tried to convince audiences it was a slow progression of a very mentally ill man. But then, in the first 20 minutes, they handed Arthur a gun?!?! From there on, it felt like the film was running with the narrative, “You can’t invalidate one man’s personal experience.” And I don’t know how I feel about that in this context.

Charles: Right. Like, Autumn and I saw the movie together and there were multiple moments where we both leaned over and were like “...what...is happening right now?” The scene where Arthur meets Sophie on the elevator plays out like a delusion, which would make a fair amount of sense if Joker actually had a solid focus on mental illness as a theme. But because the movie gets so muddled, you end up having to watch a scene where an obviously insane white man more or less threatens to kill a black woman and then she ends up deciding to date him, and all throughout the movie you’re never really given a sense that Phillips put any thought into the optics or undertones to the decisions he made during the production process.

James: I think that might ultimately be my take from the movie – I agree with Germain in that I think Phoenix gives this absolutely incredible performance as Arthur, but it feels like the movie actively seeks to undermine that performance at every conceivable level it can. It’s so discordant in its pacing and tone and even editing, cutting about the place with a reckless abandon from one idea to the next, that it felt like every time Joker came close to doing something that was...to be left open to interpretation, by its audience – whether it was a question left to linger in the air, whether it was an emotion Phoenix was conveying, the script would come banging right in and make it clear. And it was often contradictory to the last time it had done it a few scenes ago.

The stuff with Sophie felt a lot like that – like, you’re meant to think throughout that thread of the movie whether or not it’s a delusion of Arthur’s mind or if it’s some sort of fucked up kindred spirit kind of thing that blossoms into an actual support structure for his descent…and then when it comes to the reveal that yes, it’s in his head, it’s not left understated. The movie just plays a montage of all the times you’re meant to have got that it wasn’t real. There’s not a single theme or subtext left to hang for the audience to latch on to at any point in the film, so it just constantly undermines any attempt to evoke a coherent thought.

Germain: I think lots of what you are all talking about comes down to Todd Phillips as a director. Walking out of the movie I thought of The Wolf of Wall Street. That’s a movie where the characters are awful people, you know they are awful, you hate them, and yet because Martin Scorsese is so good, you can still enjoy that. Phillips in no way has that deft of a touch. I think Joker is overly, prohibitively ambitious from a thematic standpoint and he just didn’t have the ability to convey to the audience anything about Arthur other than sympathy. Even when he’s literally killing people, there’s still this undercurrent of catharsis we feel because we’ve seen him go through so much. And ultimately that undercuts a lot of what I think the movie could have said about the mind of a villain. Which, again, doesn’t excuse it, but I think explains it. The dude who made The Hangover movies was going to have a hard time riding that line and while I respect the effort, I think he missed the mark.

Autumn: The problem for me is, I don’t have sympathy for him. Sophie, and all the supporting characters in this film, were hard for me to watch because every time I saw one of them I wished I didn’t have to watch a story about Arthur. That scene where he shows up at Sophie’s door out of nowhere to hook up was a deplorable scene for me to watch. Who in their right mind thought that was okay? Not to mention the second time he shows up...

The only thing that was really connecting me to Arthur was his relationship with his mother. I loved seeing the two of them together in that apartment for the first half. The scene where he is helping her in the bath and they are lying in bed together watching TV. That was real to me. And ultimately, the film just disposed of her carelessly too.

James: That’s the thing though: What does Joker actually want you to think of the Joker by the time he’s stomping out of that psych eval with bloodied feet? Is he this populist, antifa, and anti capitalist scion? Is he a dangerous, murderous evil? Is he a mentally traumatised victim to be understood? Hell, it can’t even decide if he’s actually a hero or a villain.

Charles: It’s trying to say all of those things, but because the movie tries to tap into so much of the real world and current discussions about things like police brutality, the resistance to the fascistic right in the U.S., and – god helps us – fucking incels, it the final product is this homunculus of a movie that ultimately frames Arthur as a hero.

Germain: Autumn brings up an interesting question there. Did you feel sympathy for him? Like, the movie starts with him getting jumped for no reason. We see him get bullied, made fun of, ridiculed and more. All of that made me feel sympathy and yet, it seems like maybe I was on my own there. What about you all?

Charles: I think one of the messier aspects of the movie is how it does push you to sympathise for Arthur for the first two thirds, especially in the context of his being a person who needs public health care services that end up being taken away because of Gotham’s political shifts. In the moments where we see Arthur getting subpar therapy that isn’t really designed to help address his needs, we’re meant to see Gotham as having failed to provide its most at-risk citizens the kind of basic social safety net that, in theory, would prevent all sorts of social issues including, but not limited to, becoming a supervillain.

But as the movie goes on, Arthur becomes less and less of a man really suffering, I think? After he murders the Wall Street bros on the train, you start to see a lot of his ticks and anxiety almost fade away and you get the sense that, like, he’s a person who never could have been helped. There’s another version of this movie that uses the dissonance between those two versions of Arthur in a more fascinating way, but Joker, to me, just fell short of doing anything more than deciding to make Arthur “cool” in order to move the film towards its climax.

Germain: Yeah that’s the delicate balance I was talking about that the movie lacks. There’s probably a way for us to start sympathising and then slowly start to hate and fear him. I think by the end we do fear him but those notes of sympathy are there. And even if that’s not the case for anyone, how do you make a person we now sympathise with and know, a full-blown supervillain? If Batman did meet Arthur Fleck’s Joker, wouldn’t the thought run through your mind of “Oh, don’t beat that guy, he always got beat up?” Or something. It’s just not a productive place to end for any reason.

Damnit why are you all making me like this movie less. I liked it! I thought!

Autumn: Charles, I think you articulated my sentiment beautifully. I wanted to sympathise. When Arthur asked to increase his medication because he just wants to be happy, and the therapist said, “You’re already on seven.” When all of that gets taken away later in the film, and you know, he turns into a madman, I couldn’t help but think, what about the people this actually happens to in real life? How would they feel about this moment? I found the lack of consideration for reality in moments like that to be particularly concerning.

James: What compounded a lot of my moments of whether or not we should be feeling sympathy for Arthur also came down to the audience I saw the movie with. I agree that, by the climax of the movie, the film itself has mostly lost interest in attempting to get you to sympathise with Arthur from the standpoint of him being a person suffering mental illness being failed by a political support system, but in the run up to that discarding, there were several points of Arthur at his lowest moments where my audience straight up laughed. Like, not with Arthur, but at him – the moment where he drops the gun at the kids hospital was received like a gag bit and not something completely horrifying. The moment after he walks into the hospital door after being questioned by the police, after his mother’s just had a stroke (and at this point you’re still meant to feel like he has this sympathetic bond with her, before, you know, she’s casually disregarded via pillow), too. And it was just like…OK, what is this movie’s tonal problem that these pieces of emotional trauma and horror are met with raucous laughter?

Charles: Right. And I think that with a movie like Joker, the audience is a fundamental part of the filmgoing experience because we can all sit here and ask ourselves “Who is this movie for?” but we all know, really. The Joker fanbase is very much a thing and I feel safe saying that your typical “Release the Snyder Cut” type is who Warner Bros. had in mind as the target audience. There’s nothing wrong with liking the Joker, I think, but in the screening I first saw the movie at, I got the very distinct sense that a lot of people (who laughed and clapped at moments I thought were inappropriate) weren’t engaging with what was happening on screen beyond the fact that the Joker was up there. I feel like people who actually loved and understood the Joker as a character would have issues with this movie?

Germain: Joker is obviously influenced by the movies of Martin Scorsese, right? And he recently came out against Marvel movies, specifically, but really superhero movies as a whole. Which I think is interesting because Joker is an attempt at a deeper, Martin Scorsese-type movie released for an audience who don’t necessarily want that movie. For example, the fact anyone asked Todd Phillips about Robert Pattinson after that movie just proves the discourse isn’t up to what this movie is aspiring to. What happens next is not the point. This is a movie that you need to watch and think about, like it or hate it. It’s not a movie that needs an end-credits scene. And yet that’s kind of why it was such a success, too: the success of modern superhero movies. I don’t know. I’m rambling a bit but I think there’s something interesting in a movie being a bit too elevated for its audience even though it isn’t as elevated as it wants to be.

Charles: “Influenced.” Listen. Phillips is obviously a Taxi Driver fan, but he’s a fan who apparently doesn’t have anything substantive to add to the cinematic discourse surrounding the film, other than some shoddy nods to the film that appeals to a very particular type of film bro who likes to be loud online.

James: So, I can’t say I agree that this is a piece of prestige cinema that’s just too cerebral for the comic book movie fan, as much as Todd Phillips would like me to, because I feel like the film tries to have it both ways there (much like it does with basically any one of its messages). Because...well, I can talk about the one moment now that I did actually feel something about Joker that wasn’t inherently confused: I hated – hated – that they tied all this into yet another Batman origin scene. I didn’t need Crime Alley take #2907893724. I really didn’t need it through the lens of “Oh, Bruce Wayne becomes Batman because of a Joker-inspired anti capitalist riot.” And above all, it just felt like it cheapened the film, a bone thrown to comics nerds that doesn’t actually have anything to say beyond “look it’s that thing you know.” I hated it!

Germain: Yeah it just didn’t need it. It took away from whatever the movie was trying to say. Call it Gotham City, show the Waynes, we know what happens. You can’t have it both ways.

Autumn: You know I’m trying to think about what I did like about the film, and I really did enjoy the moments of silence; where we are just following Phoenix were the smartest decisions. It did make me think about how hard it is to define a hero and a villain, in comics and in real life. Can you have heroic intent and be a “villain”? It’s complex and the film tried to go there. But for me, the final scene where he murders the host and goes on a long speech about “nobody cares about me” makes me really uncomfortable with calling the film elevated. Immediately after he terrorises, everybody cares about him. Nah.

Charles: Everyone on-screen cares about him and even though we see that his actions literally lead to the needless deaths of innocent people, Joker insists that we smile through it all and walk away thinking, I guess, “well now he’s going on to bigger and better things as the one person alive who’s capable of taking on the world’s greatest detective,” which just left me cold. That all being said, Frances Conroy was great. Loved seeing her on-screen, 10/10 would watch a movie about her character and her character alone.

James: I will say, given that the movie just broke a box office record – and I was personally baffled to see a queue unlike anything I’ve ever seen at my local cinema trying to get into the next screening as I was leaving – it feels like an inevitability that we’ll one day see Phoenix don the clown paint again for another outing. And for all the nothingness Joker settled on as a thesis for me, I’m potentially interested to see what could become (perhaps especially so if Phillips didn’t return to direct?) of this take on the character now that all this aimless navel-gazery of what the character is, isn’t, could be or couldn’t be, is out of the way. I want to see Phoenix get to engage with this character again in a movie that actually supports him doing so.

Germain: If nothing else, I appreciate that this movie inspired such passionate emotions in all of us and a level of discourse that we don’t regularly get with comic book movies. So while I’m still on the positive side, all of these valid points made me think even more deeply about the film than I already have, and for that, I appreciate it and you all.

Charles: 👀