First of all, do not read this if you haven’t seen Joker. I will spoil it and I’d prefer people to go in as fresh as I did to generate this reaction.
Generally my screenwriting lane is that of the dark comedy. While most of my scripts have plenty of humourous moments, they also usually death, illness, violence or heartbreak at some point. I reckon I get away with this because humour is based around tension. We laugh to break tension, when we see that something is not as awkward or problematic as we thought it was.
But we also laugh for the opposite reason; when a situation is so tense that we long for it to end and have to laugh to do it ourselves. That’s why the cringe humour of Ricky Gervais, the insult humour of Don Rickles and Stewart Lee’s hostility to his audience work so well.
And it’s also why the choices with Joaquin Phoenix’s character in Joker are so inspired.
Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) suffers from pathological laughter. As a result of his past traumas, he cannot face tense situations without bursting out laughing as a pure physical response. At some point in the first act of this film I found myself thinking, “damn! Of all the different incarnations of the Joker over the decades, how has nobody thought of this before?”
Of course Joaquin Phoenix’s brilliant performance doesn’t hurt. In a way the script didn’t need his expositionary calling cards explaining his mood dissonance; it’s quite clear that there’s no mirth at all behind his strained cackles. While given less comical lines than other Jokers in the past, this one does make light of horrific situations with dances and expressions. And making light of the horrific is peak Joker to me.
I’ve seen that some people have taken offence at this movie. Good. If film about the Joker doesn’t offend those prone to attack statements on behalf of others, it’s probably missed the mark! The character is a nihilist, striking out at a system that can’t really claim the moral high ground and taking the piss out of many values we take for granted. You’re either willing to be taken along with that or you aren’t.
The violence in the film is actually rare. There’s no fight scenes, just the occasional murder. But when killing are done, they’re neither clean nor Tarantino-level excessive. It’s believable, it’s brutal, it shows violence to be a horrible thing that we should avoid. That people take offence at this more than the other extremes is quite weird when you think about it!
There was a moment in Joker where I was worried the writers were about to pull one of my most personally hated tropes: the secret long-lost relative! But ultimately, the film makes a mockery of that too, effectively setting up a twist and then undoing it as a lie. A critic might want to bang the “SUBVERTING EXPECTATIONS DOES NOT A GOOD STORY MAKE!” drum, but I respect their recognition that the Joker has very little grounding on reality. In Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel The Killing Joke, Joker remarks that he has many different versions of his past in his head. “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”
If I was going to pick one hole in Joker, I’d say that the final scene could have been cut. The scene before leaves some ambiguity on Arthur’s fate, and sets up the story as a plausible strand to Joker’s multiple choice past perfectly in line with the comics. If the film had ended on this moment it would have been damn near perfect. While the final coda is very good, I think such an uncomfortable film as this could have stood to be as unresolved and troubling in its ending as possible.
I definitely think Joker will do well in awards season (especially in the acting and music department) and highly recommend it to any fans of the comics, or of dark psychological films in general. I haven’t seen many films that thrust you into a character’s mindset like this for a while. Because when Arthur’s tension-induced cackles gave way to the slaughter of unlikeable bullies, I couldn’t help myself.