Joker - Movie Review
“All I have are negative thoughts.” might not be as catchy as “Why so serious?” and it surely won’t enter the pop-culture zeitgeist as feverishly as that famous Heath Ledger quote from 2008’s The Dark Knight. A decade ago, an entire viral social media campaign was built around those famous words from Ledger’s Joker, and a pop culture icon was born. That Joker was surely demented yet premeditated and thoughtful. He was an anarchist. He wanted to watch the world burn. He lived to play the game. That is not The Joker that director Todd Phillips and writer Scott Silver have given us in 2019. This is a Joker who is burning on the inside, plagued by mental disorder, and is consumed with negativity towards himself. This is a much scarier Joker.
I’ve had about twelve hours to digest Joker, and the one thing that I keep going back to is that I just can’t believe that Warner Brothers and DC made this movie at this time in history. There’s a cloud of controversy surrounding the release of Joker, which is being pegged (mainly by people who haven't seen the movie yet) as a dangerous film that sympathizes with incel culture and justifies the actions of those manifesto writing maniacs that pop up in all of our news feeds every couple of weeks or so.
From a distance, Joker does check those boxes. But I would challenge anybody with preconceived notions about the movie to go into it with an open-mind and search for a different perspective, one that isn’t prescribed to you by a stranger on Twitter. Joaquin Phoenix is (is he?) Arthur Fleck, a nobody. Society has ignored and forgotten him, he’s looked down upon and beaten, and if he were to disappear off the face of the Earth, you’d be hard pressed to find a soul who cared. At its core, Joker is a character study of a severely mentally ill man. Arthur is heavily medicated and delusional. He is the direct result of some combination of abuse, adoption, and infidelity, and is desperate for somebody, anybody to just acknowledge that he exists.
When he's not at the local comedy club, falling flat on his face, Arthur spends his evenings care-taking for his sick mother Penny (an incredible performance by Francis Conroy). The two of them deserve some sort of award for most terrifying mother/son relationship since Norman Bates. Together, they routinely watch their favorite late night Gotham talk show, hosted by Robert De Niro’s Murray Franklin, and though their relationship becomes more...complicated as the movie unfolds, there seems to be an admiration and loyalty for his mother that comes from a genuine place.
Phoenix completely disappears into this role, and though you’re going to read a lot of Taxi Driver comparisons, Fleck feels more akin to Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. His revenge kills awaken a sultry confidence, proper posture, and elegant and wild dancing. It feels like with each step into madness he is liberating his mind, giving it a freedom that no medication or a trip to the social workers office ever could. Yes, this is scary. It’s actually terrifying. It’s terrifying because even though this is a film that is rooted in Batman lore (Gotham, The Wayne’s, etc.) it also manages to address in a very frank manner, many of the issues that are plaguing society as a whole in 2019. Mental Health, Gun Violence, Class Warfare, and the civil unrest of the ignored and downtrodden. This is a very gritty take on the Batman universe but somehow, a fairly realistic take on the actual world that we're living in.
Todd Phillips once again worked with cinematographer Lawrence Sher (The Hangover Series, Godzilla: King of The Monsters) and the two of them have put together a masterfully shot film, evoking hints of Scorsese and Aronofsky, yet existing as a wholly original experience.
Does Joker glorify the violence and will it serve as a template for those who sympathize with Arthur Fleck? Maybe? But maybe it can serve a greater purpose. Maybe it can stand alone as a piece of art that is taking a snapshot of some very real, very scary, and very serious issues that we need to address sooner rather than later. Joker should receive a ton of awards buzz and I wouldn't be shocked if Phoenix takes home the Academy Award for Best Actor. This isn't a comic book movie, and it's definitely not a movie about a failed standup comedian. This is a clinical analysis of both nature and nurture completely failing one individual, and how he comes to terms with the negative tidal wave of thoughts, feelings, and emotions that he struggles with every day of his life.