By Drew Kiess
Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix and is directed by Todd Phillips. Based on the villain we all know and love to hate from DC Comics, Joker is a one-and-done psychological thriller that has no franchise ambition, which is something that the comic book movie sub-genre is sadly lacking. Sequels and franchise-starters are the name of the game, and if nothing else, maybe that trend will finally be bucked. One can dream.
Once upon a time, I wrote about how dumb of an idea I thought a Joker movie was. I am happy to report that in the case of this film, I was dead wrong. Joker is a freight train and it hits hard. Like its subject, the film slithers and contorts as it weaves an uncomfortable story about the relationship of mental illness and violence, as well as explore, more superficially, how a character like the Joker could possibly come to exist.
This film is not unique in its depiction of madness. As has been pointed out by many before me, Taxi Driver, King of Comedy, and American Psycho all have shown a main character fall into murderousness. But when you take the most high profile villain in the most high profile subgenre of film and entertainment and give him a similar treatment, people are going to react. It’s not part of the plan. And that reaction has been harsh. Some are simply trying to score woke points in a world where clicks equal dollars (I don’t get paid to write these reviews, by the way). Others are striking against a preconceived idea of what a film like this ought to be. But Joker has opened up conversations like no other movie in recent memory, regardless of its quality.
Luckily, it is quite good. I will even dare to say that Joker is great. It is repetitive at this point to praise Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck and Joker, but I will do it anyways because it is deserving of the praise. What Phoenix manages to pull off is incredible. He is physically unlikable at all points in this movie, yet somehow manages to maintain a certain quality of helplessness that it is reasonable to feel some empathy towards him early in his downward spiral. However, that quality of helplessness vanishes as we reach the final stage of development in this two hour thriller. Fears that Joker would somehow make the Joker’s violence attractive are, in my opinion, unmerited. In any other story, a likeable character would choose option “A” at critical moments in his narrative. Arthur, every time, chooses option “B”, moving him further away from the character we as an audience empathized with at the beginning. The film, instead of glorifying the violence, makes us mourn for the fall of the offender. We wanted better for him and he fell short of that hope. It is a tragedy, which is nothing new to the arts. Just ask Bill Shakespeare.
It is a shame that we will never see this Joker get punched in the face by a man dressed like a bat, but for once, the Joker will get all the press in this film. But if you are a Batman fan, fear not: there are so many nods to other iterations of the character, and his eighty year legacy is honored well by the Phillip’s script. From references to Cesar Romero and Heath Ledger, to plot points ripped from the pages of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, this elseworld’s tale does not shy away from its comic book lineage. There is a wonderful blend of source material and creative license that keeps us on our toes while never straying away from the black heart of the clown prince.
Joker is one of those movies that it is hard to fully commit to an opinion on. It is deserving of long conversations and quiet reflection. While the internet is buzzing about whether or not it will lead to gun violence, it bluntly asks whether our monsters are born in a vacuum, or are they born out of a society going to hell? Perhaps in a climate of over-sensitivity and stark black and white morality, this question lands with a dud, but, it might just be the kind of important questions we need to be asking as our handbasket closes in on its final destination.
The film is not for everyone. It is audacious, violent, uncomfortable, and beautifully gross. It is also fascinating, thought provoking, and provocative. It is tempting for me to believe that those who do not see the message in the film are those who want to avoid it, but I also think that there are many who are simply not ready to have that conversation just yet. How are we responsible for our monsters? What have we done to create the awful world our villains live in? These are the questions that we are left with, and I hope that we begin to ask them.
Final score: Full House