BS: The Joker is without a doubt the most iconic supervillain that the world will ever know, and will almost certainly never be outshined by anyone else. He’s one of those characters that is so much in the American lexicon that even the most lackadaisical grandmother out of Middlesboro could identify the character just by the name alone. Each film iteration of the character brings something completely new and original and has become something of a character piece for whoever decides to take on the role. From the unbridled chaos of Heath Ledger’s take on the character, Jack Nicholsons’s gleefully evil portrayal, and Jared Leto’s used condom laced antics behind the scenes, each actor has brought something different each time. The movie Joker found it’s star in character actor Joaquin Phoenix who certainly adds a lot of his signature commitment to the role and the movie is certainly better because of it.
DD: Let’s take a moment before we really get too lost in the review to at least set the stage of the film. Don’t worry, we aren’t going to spoil anything that isn’t in any of the trailers. Joker is about Arthur Fleck, a n unsuccessful comedian who lives with his mother and struggles with mental illness in his day to day life. Throughout the film you follow Arthur as his life takes twists and turns until he finally reaches a breaking point. It is at this breaking point that he finishes his transformation into the Batman comic book villain, the Joker. On the whole, the movie is a character piece about what makes someone change from a relatively normal life and become the Clown Prince of Crime.
Phoenix really goes all in on his role as Arthur Fleck, giving a very nuanced performance especially at the beginning of the film when he is primarily just someone suffering through mental illness and a general lack of hope. His performance is the centerpiece of the film and full credit to Phoenix for making a character like Arthur Fleck and later the Joker emotional and strangely charismatic. He clearly worked hard perfecting his own version of Joker’s laugh that sounds unnerving but also can carry subtler notes of what his emotional state is at the time and what pain this laugh is actually hiding. The big problem with his performance is that it highlights how poorly written every other character in the movie is. Joker has a strong base to build on but all of the other characters boil down to stock character cliches. Part of this could be intentional since we are in the Joker’s head for most of the film but intentional or not it only highlights the fact that the world feels empty. It exists only to be the motivation for his character and has no other real life to it.
BS: While I don’t think it’s a perfect performance, it’s clear how much time and commitment Phoenix went through to become Arthur Fleck and honestly, his performance is about the only thing I enjoyed about the film. Arthur/Joker is terrifying, and when his evolution to the Joker is complete, I could see him competing with the greats that have come before him. The Joker of the climax feels like the Joker we’ve seen in the comics, theatrical, a dark sense of humor, everything that I expected, and frankly wanted to see in the film when I saw the first trailer.If that Joker were to go up against Robert Patinson’s Batman, I would be irrationally excited because that’s a villain I’d love to see go up against the Caped Crusader. That Joker is only in the film for literal moments and the ride to get there was one of the most disturbing and dangerous journey’s that I’ve seen in a film.
DD: The film struggles at its core as to what kind of film it is. It starts seemingly telling the story of a sympathetic man who is let down by the system when he needs help but then it transitions to taking on an anti-establishment message that blames the wealthy and powerful for everybody’s problems for stealing funding from necessary services. Neither of those are on their own unheard of messages to have in films but the real problem comes in Joker’s final message which is basically that chaos and violence are the only true form of justice. It seem to want so badly the Joker to be a hero that it is willing to ignore the fact that he is a monster. At his core, the Joker is a creature of chaos who doesn’t really stand for anything, but while this movie’s version would certainly say that about himself, the film wants you to believe that in the end he is in the right. It paints every victim as someone who deserved what they got and someone the world would be better without. It riffs a lot on the works of Scorsese but seems to miss a fundamental element of his films. When Scorsese would make a film about someone who is a bad person, you would never lose sight of the fact that the character was in the wrong. Joker wants you to believe it’s protagonist is always in the right which is a terrifying message to put out there.
BS: The message is my biggest problem with the film because it scares me a lot and not in the way you traditionally want a film to scare you. It’s all over the place and I can’t help but feel that a movie like this can only do irreversible damage to the wrong person who sees this. It feels very school shooter friendly, trying to make us feel sympathy for a character who takes control of his life by murdering those who have wronged him. There’s a scene in the film where he spares someone he used to work with because in the Joker’s own words “You were always nice to me.” It’s a shockingly tone-deaf film, a film that has undercover cops and credible threats to showings of the film reported throughout the country. There was a moment in my screening, during a pivotal moment of transformation for Arthur, where the lights in the theater came on and the screen went blank. As I looked into the eyes of my girlfriend and those around us, I saw obvious fear that a Joker inspired tragedy was about to unfold, when really it was just a power surge. We live in a time where mass-shootings have become a common occurrence and we’ve become numb to it and it’s mind-boggling to me that Todd Phillips could make a film so oblivious to the tragedies we face on a daily basis and make a film that can only make them worse.
DD: While my experience with the film didn’t include any potential shooter scares like Bill’s did, it was not without worry. The people throughout the theater that would laugh at some of the darker and more macabre moments and even the people saying “Cool” as he would continue on his murder sprees only showcased that people can easily be taken in by all this, which to me was the most terrifying part of my film-going experience. I don’t think the filmmakers intentions were to inspire people to violence or even to promote it all but the structure of it all does seem to focus the audience’s attention towards thinking that. It has some genuinely impressive sequences with impressive cinematography and one outstanding performance that could have made for an impressive character piece showing the inner workings that turn someone into the criminal mastermind that the Joker becomes, similar to what happens with Walter White in Breaking Bad, but it was not meant to be because they couldn’t acknowledge that one of the most iconic villains of pop culture, might be a bad guy. The film may have started as an attempt to give context to Arthur Fleck’s battle with mental illness but it ends glorifying his acceptance of his own murderous tendencies. Any potential for actually getting an honest picture of a struggling person is sidelined so the film can show you how cool he looks as the Joker. If they had a deeper point to make, it probably sits on the cutting room floor along with any character moment not involving Joaquin Phoenix.