Movie Review: “Joker” – Knock, Knock?

Written by Jeremiah Greville October 17, 2019

No movie has ever hammered home the idea to me that we’re all living in our own realities as much as Joker. It’s clear that many viewers — critics and audience alike — have left this film fully swept away by the bleak violent events they’ve witnessed. Others, of course, have questioned its place in modern pop-culture. As a film fan and comic geek, my history with this film was a messy one. At first, I was intrigued, then after the first trailer — worried. When the initially rapturous film festival reviews came in, I was excited. Then I finally saw the film and felt immediately deflated. This is it? This is the thing everyone is talking about? I don’t know what reality the filmmakers were living in, or what those audiences were thinking.

Then I saw it again.

Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a down-on-his-luck street clown and aspiring stand-up comic with a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at times. As his life falls apart he discovers his true calling and gives in to his darker impulses and growing madness. Joker also stars Robert DeNiro as late night talkshow host Murray Franklin; Zazie Beetz as a single mother who lives next door to Arthur; and Frances Conroy as Arthur’s mother, Penny. It’s directed by Todd Phillips from a script by Phillips and Scott Silver. There’s more to the film than that, of course, but here’s where we get into nebulous “spoiler” territory. I’ll avoid the big stuff and do my best to keep things vague…but this is a film based on one of the darkest super-villains in the history of comic books. You probably have some idea where it’s going.

“Check out this joker.”

Joker is an interesting film, but it’s not a masterpiece or even an especially well thought-out bit of film-making. The central performance is the best part of movie by far, but everything else is pulled in multiple directions that make the end result seem sort of haphazard. Joker lives in the uncanny valley — that eerie, uncomfortable feeling that what you’re seeing is almost real, but not quite. Everything from the script to the set design to the sound effects and music choices amplify this feeling. DeNiro’s Franklin feels awkwardly forced, not seasoned. An early scene of bullying feels melodramatic and obvious, not real. In one scene, a character punctuates a tense moment with a punch that sounds like it came from an action film. While the score is haunting and atmospheric, the soundtrack is embarrassingly obvious, with several moments undercut by weak musical choices. I could go on. The whole film is like this, and even if this effect is intentional, it still doesn’t work.

I don’t think Joker is a good enough film to inspire people to violence, and yet it still may. Having seen the film, I understand the worry, but think it’s the same worry that comes with any controversial movie. Joker isn’t special, it’s simply the latest in a long list of films about a troubled protagonist going down a dark road. We’ve seen this story before. It’s also not inciting violence either, and goes out of its way to undercut it’s own political message — if it has any at all. Arthur Fleck is a man who calls out society for not thinking of him, and yet thinks of nobody but himself. There are times that Joker is almost self-aware enough to call him out on this, but it never really reaches that point. It will be obvious to most audiences that Arthur is deranged from the get-go. Yes, he goes over the edge, but is it really a push when someone was already, happily, mid-jump?

“It’s okay, I’m a good guy.”

And these questions largely avoid the real social issues of mental illness and social isolation. Lonely, isolated people like Arthur will only be further demonized due to this film. Those who identify with him won’t feel any sense of representation. If you identify with Arthur, then listen up: this movie doesn’t see you — it hates you. And then there’s the theme of class struggle that the film staples awkwardly onto itself. The Gotham City of the film is on the verge of class warfare, which is further incited by Arthur’s actions. But even as Arthur himself disavows any connection to the protests, the film inextricably links them. It feels like Todd Phillips is making a larger statement about disenfranchisement, but the idea is muddled and half-baked. Yes, mental illness and poverty are linked. No, they’re not the same. Joker appeals to several groups at once, misrepresenting and insulting them all.

As I mentioned before, I saw this film twice, and Joker was a much better viewing experience the second time. Knowing where the story would and wouldn’t go, it allowed me to appreciate the strong pacing and build-up of Arthur’s journey. All of the problems I had with my first viewing still stood out, but awareness of the film’s faults somehow made me focus more on the film’s strengths. The grimy 80’s Gotham/New York setting is beautifully presented, and the film is stunning. There are small details, like the colour of Arthur’s clothing going from light greens to deep burgundy as the film progresses, that lend a sense of weight to the proceedings. At times, the film is a bit too glossy for it’s own good, betraying the bleak aesthetic it aspires to, but those moments are rare. Joker is far less violent than you might expect, but the violence is always shocking and intimate. The one rare moment the film pulls back and doesn’t show us what happens is also the scariest.

“Your name’s Arthur, right?”

But the best part of Joker, and the one element that can be completely praised without reservation, is Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck. It’s phenomenal — he’s phenomenal. He didn’t just lose weight for the role, he actually inhabits Arthur with a deliberate physicality that makes every sinewy movement count. From his loping cartoonish run to his searching, desperate looks and pained, terrifying laugh — it’s all mesmerizing. While I question what director Todd Phillips really intended with this film, I don’t have any similar questions about Phoenix. Fleck is emotionally raw, awkwardly fragile, quietly menacing and yet always feels human. This is entirely on Phoenix, and he deserves all the praise he’s been getting.

But as for Joker? I don’t think it’s really all that praiseworthy. My second viewing was miles better than my first, but it didn’t fully wash the bad taste out of my mouth. I’m happy that an experimental comic film like Joker can exist, but I wish it could have been smarter and more self-aware. I don’t think Phillips knows what he’s trying to say with this film, and I’m upset and offended by the pretension that hangs over the whole thing. He’s thrown eight buckets of crap at the wall, and whatever sticks he’ll point at and proudly say, “No, see, that’s actually the point.” Well, if it’s a joke on the audience, it’s not a very good one. I wish this film was better — I really do. But I don’t think I’m living in the same reality as those who love it.

My Rating: 6.5/10

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About Jeremiah Greville

Jeremiah Greville is a pretty rad beard that's attached itself to a human face. The beard likes movies, television, comic books, and gentle finger rubs. The human likes pizza and sleep. When they work together, they write reviews. Hope you enjoy them!

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