Written by Scott Silver and Todd Phillips, and directed by Phillips, “Joker” is a tragedy (comedy?) about how a lethal combination of society’s ills, neglect, and hatred toward’s one another can cause something truly evil to erupt. So, after months of national dialogue about how this film could be considered “dangerous” and “incendiary“, and now that the film has opened to a wide release, we can discuss the merits of those talking points and whether or not they hold any water. Joaquin Phoenix stars as the titular Joker, a character whose hidden beneath the peeled back layers of one Arthur Fleck. If you have any knowledge of one of the comic-book character’s more infamous storylines, “The Killing Joke” in which the Joker tries to prove to Batman that anyone is just “One Bad Day” away from becoming a violently unhinged and gleeful nihilist such as himself, then you’ll have a good idea of where the film ultimately winds up. The film is a challenging one at times, and it does inspire conversation- but something wholly different than what eighty-percent of the hubbub has been about.
First, however, we must take a moment or two to praise the work and care star Joaquin Phoenix put into this performance. Its a staggering amount of quiet subtleties paired with explosively grandiose swings that have been ground down into a portrayal that constantly evolves over the course of the two hour film. I’m not sure if it’s the “best” performance of an actor that I’ve seen in 2019, but it IS the most memorable for now. There’s a lot of legwork done to make the audience sympathize with the super-villain early on and it was effective in how that empathy was crafted. Arthur Fleck is a man that’s been battered by a world that is heartless and cold towards anyone that’s not wealthy or famous, and not a single person seems to understand him. Eventually, this empathy wanes and frays as Fleck crosses line after socially acceptable line until you can no longer feel good for once rooting for the character. Touched by hopelessness and tragedy, Arthur Fleck is Bruce Wayne and vice versa- what makes them different is how they each respond to such tragedies.
Before we get into a dialogue about the controversy surrounding the film, let’s take a moment to examine the craft put into the film aside from the performances. Gotham has never looked better in my opinion, this was truly a cinematic and believable depiction of the crime ridden and trash buried city that felt lifted directly off the comic’s pages. This Gotham is what I picture when I think of the fantastical city, Nolan’s Gotham never felt this realized to me. For all the successes of those Dark Knight films, this Gotham is my stylized preference for the look and tangibility of the infamous city. Speaking of the comic books, there are some direct nods and scenes dealing with the ever looming Wayne family, but they’re not too distracting from Arthur’s narrative. A couple of shots and moments feel a bit too connected to the Wayne family’s heir and future protector of Gotham, but this IS a film residing in Gotham City, so it is to be expected. The score was a perfect combination of overwhelming cellos and bellowing low notes all evocative of the sadness, dread, anger, and confidence relating to Arthur at any given scene. Though, there was a curious choice to use what can only be described as one of those “Jock Jams” stadium-anthems used at a particularly important moment for the character and its one of the most questionable score/song insert choices since “IT Chapter 2”- it just felt very out-of-place within the greater context of the film.
The scenes where Arthur is keenly aware of how he doesn’t fit in with crowds were particularly insightful to his world view. In the crowd of a comedy club he jots down notes while laughing at the wrong beats of a comedian’s stand-up set completely out of sync with the audience, or when he’s dancing in his living room to prep for going onstage, meticulously studying how people should behave in such scenarios; I appreciate these scenes within the context of this film and the superhero genre as a whole- but Art-house this is not. Which brings me to the crux of criticism for this film, it’s a deeper dive into the psychology of a character than what most films within this sub-genre of cinema will commit to, but this is more of a case of “Popcorn Psychology“, for lack of a better term, than an actual analysis of the character of Arthur Fleck or the Joker. The film asks you to indulge in how society’s abject apathy about people over profits can turn a broken man against said system, but it offers no answers, coyly rejecting any semblance of a political stance or a morality check on how we’ve failed the common man and what we could do to avoid such a fate. That being said, adapting a structured plot around a character such as the Joker, of Chaos incarnate, I understand that the difficulties of adapting such a character without Batman and Bruce Wayne to juxtapose against Arthur would be demanding to say the least.
Considering the hysteria surrounding the release of this film, after walking out of the theater, I have to say I was surprised that we were even having this discussion at all. I thought we were over blaming entertainment for violence, but apparently some issues never fully evaporate. The idea that this film would inspire another mass shooting in America (of which we have about 1 per day give or take a few data points) seems like an exaggeration by media outlets. Sure, this movie has some violent scenes, but the argument that this film in particular is dangerous enough to inspire people to acts of violence says more about our own society’s issues than the film’s issues. This film does not glorify violence, and anyone that would be inspired by this to take up arms probably wasn’t all that level-headed to begin with. Was there an outbreak of killings after the debut of “American Psycho”? How about “Drive”? What about “Breaking Bad”? These films and television shows focused on “loner” white males with questionable morality that take up arms, and none of these examples (among countless others) caused a violent uprising. “Joker” is just a movie, not a movement. It’s a thoughtful character study about how we forge tomorrow’s villains with the choices we make today. The moral that I took away from this film was “Be nicer to people”. When we look past our problems and ignore them, they fester into something capable of evil. This movie should make you consider your fellow man, any good film generates good conversation and this one certainly does that. So go see “Joker” for yourself and forge your own opinion, it’s a decently entertaining film and one that I highly recommend even if only for Joaquin Phoenix’s stellar performance.
Final Score: 1 Bad Day