I saw Joker tonight. I have a review and I have a criticism of the critiques I’ve read so far. Review first.
The Joker may be a comic book character but Joker is not a comic book movie – it is a painful, character-driven film that offers a glimpse into the minds of people we can’t comprehend. Any story that deals in common movie stereotypes – mental illness, stalking, violence, isolation – runs the risk of becoming either an homage to stories previously told or a caricature that reduces these things to mere plot devices. Joker treads in familiar territory but manages to stay one step ahead the whole time, creating something that is incredibly effective as a standalone story but leaves me dreadfully desiring to see more from this character.
Movies are projects assembled by a small army of people – directors/actors/cinematographers/producers/editors/sound artists/extras. In good movies, all these components come together and create an enjoyable experience for the audience. In great movies, however, each of these roles can be thrust into the spotlight in ways that feel natural and additive to the overall work.
Yes, the multiple slow-motion Joker dance sequences are a cinematographer’s dream but they don’t feel indulgent – they are inserted into the film to allow us to experience the momentary relief the character must feel when indulging in a repulsive action that brings about a sense of normalcy that most of us can’t relate to.
Director Todd Phillips’ Road Trip was my second favourite movie in high school but the Todd Phillips of Joker is unrecognizable from that director. Gone are the scenes that linger too long, making sure that we all got the joke. Instead, we are placed into uncomfortably voyeuristic vantage points that lead up to very brief moments of carnage.
Joaquin Phoenix chews up scenery throughout the film – Joker is an actor’s playground – but there is not one second of acting that makes you ever think “man, that Joaquin Phoenix is a good actor.” When you hear the phrase, “character actor,” it shouldn’t be a phrase relegated to an actor you have seen often but whose name you do not know. “Character actor,” should be the biggest compliment paid to any actor because it means the actor has disappeared entirely. Phoenix has done this so many times in his career, from the sniveling Commodus in Gladiator to the manipulative L. Ron Hubbard substitute in The Master, Joker may finally be the role that cements his legacy in the history books.
As to the story itself, Joker is a triumph. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie that has taken such an already well-established character and twisted him into a totally new entity that is still entirely congruent with everything we knew about the character before. Walking out of the movie, I wanted to talk to somebody about mental health and violence and Thomas Wayne and King Of Comedy and A Clockwork Orange and brilliant ret-conning…but I was in Spokane, Washington where I don’t know anybody so I just brought hotel pasta and box-wine up to my room to talk to myself via Microsoft Word. You need to see Joker and you need to see it with friends who love the movies and you need to talk about it after. It is teeming with fodder for conversations on nature vs nurture, culpability, capacity, pharmaceuticals, social services…but the only way anyone will ever talk about these things after a movie is if the movie is any good and this one happens to be just brilliant.
Now. To the reviews of Joker. You will be hard-pressed to find a review(at least one that isn’t buried deep down in the search results) that doesn’t reference the following terms: incels, Aurora shooting, hollow, sympathetic. I guess I just don’t get it. Initial reviews of the movie from the film festival circuit were great. Once the idea of a potentially sympathetic villain inspiring copycat acts of violence was floated out onto the internet, it seemed like all subsequent reviews were focused on moral outrage instead of the merits of the film. Joker is absolutely a film that examines the mixture of fate and happenstance that can lead to horrifying events. What it doesn’t do, however, is claim that understanding how a thing came to be justifies what it is. Arthur Fleck is abused, mentally unstable, delusional, a victim, and unloved. Joker is a villain. Creating a sense of empathy for the person on a devastating path is not the same as validating the actions one may undertake as a result. I mentioned the word, “hollow.” As a word that kept getting used in poor reviews of the film – hollow is one of the more perfect words you could possibly use to describe Joker. If you walk out feeling hollow and slightly depressed, then the movie worked! You shouldn’t walk out of that movie feeling encouraged. Meaningful works of art ought to make you FEEL something. Joker feels hollow because Joker is hollow and understanding just how deep and dark that kind of soul abyss can be is important. Understand that there are people you encounter, every day, who are hollow and desperate for something to fill that void. Maybe a movie like Joker might wake us up to that fact and give us the opportunity to fill these people with compassion and human interaction before they find some misguided way to fill it themselves. Even if I’m wrong on all of that…at the end of the day, Joker is a movie, and it’s wildly entertaining and it’s a shame to see so many professional reviewers ready to pan a movie over perceived politics instead of just sitting back and enjoying their evening at the movies.