Joker Review: Loathing and Sympathy for the Devil

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Few recent movies have managed to provoke so many adverse reactions as the latest Todd Phillips’ take on the infamous Gotham villain. We can already count it among the notorious ranks of Natural Born Killers, Taxi Driver, and Clockwork Orange. It’s certainly the most controversial movie of the year and this Joker review will address that.

So, what gives?

Well, it seems many people are using Joker as a punching bag, unleashing their fears and anger onto it. Critiques are doing something similar. They are holding it to the highest scrutiny because of the recent wave of mass shootings committed by people from the fringes of society.

An unapologetic origin story of a supervillain using violence to climb the power ladder had to stir up the hornet’s nest. If you ask me, it’s a real shame we have to start this Joker review bogged down in this muddle. But, we shall rise from it and tell you what this movie is really about.

Joke’s On You

Let’s kick off this Joker review by clearing the foul air.

Claims that movies can be dangerous because they glorify violence are nothing new. They are probably as old as the cinema itself. Sometimes, people raise legitimate concerns about the content that millions (including children) consume.

On the other hand, we encounter misguided attempts to cast moral judgments and score some prestige points along the way. In this case, we’re talking about a toxic game of self-indulgence and an absurd level of hypocrisy. It’s often a sad injustice to the movie as an art form.

The tricky thing is we don’t have universal criteria for reaching the verdict of a movie. But, judging by common sense, it’s clear the fact that a movie showing violence cannot be ample evidence for proclaiming guilt. The amount or intensity of violence still says nothing about the movie’s relation to that violence.

For instance, a filmmaker could throw in gruesome scenes in an attempt to warn us about ravaging effects real violence has on society at large. Or, he may use brutality as a plot device or a character development vehicle. Then, there are cases of directors doing some self-service because they just deem violence fun, cinematic, or exciting.

I reckon the problem here is Phillips refuses to play to the expectations of the mass audience. He doesn’t want to spell everything out for us by saying “You see people, Joker is a terrible person and he deserves punishment”. Unlike so many other Hollywood crowd-pleasers, Joker trusts the audience to draw its own conclusions.

joker review

And hence we see the army of vocal opposition rallying. Among them, there are people who simply cannot cope with a lack of moral catharsis, an act in which we unite against an evil figure, such as a devil or a terrorist mastermind.

Indeed, if you go in expecting heavy-handed moral lectures and good guys winning the day, you’re bound to be disappointed.

Yes, the moments when violence erupts are rather graphic. But, they are by no means the most gruesome scenes you’ll see this year. Just take a look at Tarantino’s latest work, which again speaks to the bloodthirstiness in all of us.

Besides, so many antiheroes have committed atrocities on the big screen before and I don’t recall them causing outrage of this epic magnitude. Drive, for example, was a particularly violent movie about a loner man taking justice into his own hands.

Now, there is definitely something controversial about this movie’s approach to violence. Almost every murder that occurred ignited waves of laughter in the packed cinema I attended. I have to admit that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud too.

Yet, is this a problem of a movie or does it say more about us, the viewers? I would argue the latter.

The Stage is Set

It pains me to see so many Joker reviews failing to analyze anything that actually relates to the language of the movie: cinematography, photography, score, acting, writing, etc.

I guess most critiques do mention Joaquin Phoenix’s brilliant, Oscar-worthy performance of Arthur Fleck and it would be delusional not to. So, let’s leave all the bloated controversy behind now and examine the real meat of the movie, starting with the protagonist.

joker review

Phoenix steals every scene he is in and gives us a master class in method acting. He completely embodies a mentally ill person, who aspires to become a standup comedian.  This career goal constantly eludes him. The issue is he is painfully awkward and unfunny, to say the least. He clearly doesn’t fit anywhere and not for lack of trying.

His laughter isn’t contagious, but unnerving. It’s a result of a mental disorder and he doesn’t always get a chance to explain himself. There is a strong physical dimension to Phoenix’s performance as well. I particularly liked the odd dance moves that would come at the most inappropriate of times, just like his maniacal laughter.

Arthur commands center stage in a way that overshadows all other characters (which sadly aren’t well fleshed out). Apart from the relationship with his troubled mother, there isn’t much real human contact we can examine. The urban environment around him is where we have to look for answers and cues.

What we witness on screen isn’t exactly the grim-dark Gotham from Batman movies and video games, at least not right away. There are still rare glimpses of normal city life, especially when it comes to shots filmed during the day.

However, the city is slowly sinking into chaos and unrest. Occasional TV news reports paint a picture of a community plagued by problems, from brutal murders to the invasion of “super-rats”. As garbage piles up in the streets, hopes of a better tomorrow crumble.

Some Scars and Bruises Never Heal

Against this unforgiving backdrop, Arthur starts off an underdog cosntantly getting bullied, insulted, robbed, and beat up. He is a petty clown for hire nobody appreciates, including his bosses. In his own words, he is invisible and feels as if he doesn’t even exist.

As the movie progresses, he gradually loses everything, even though he had close to nothing to begin with. You can see precisely how he was gradually pushed to the edge, to his breaking point. Pain and suffering are exactly what pave the way to the crime throne of Gotham.

After embracing these emotions and turning them into a weapon, Arthur becomes a catalyst for all the rage and resentment of a divided society. He even inspires a bunch of copycat violent acts. Soon, the class war reaches a fever pitch and Arthur relishes this turn of events.

There’s no real battle of good and evil taking place. Politicians like Thomas Wayne, corrupt to the core, only add fuel to the fire with their arrogance. They lash out at protesters and cut social programs meant to save those at the bottom.

Once all hell breaks loose, there’s no stopping it. The menacing score (by the Icelandic composer who also did Chernobyl) helps Phillips amplify every key shot of Arthur coming one step closer to becoming the lord of chaos, the smiley devil himself.

This is also when the dilemma materializes for us viewers: are we supposed to root for him or stop feeling any sympathy at all? This Joker review acknowledges both impulses.

Why So Serious?

Everything about the movie is downbeat and downright depressing.

There’s no light at the end of the tunnel (Bruce Wayne is still years away from becoming the caped vigilante). Phillips invites us to go down the dark rabbit hole we rarely dare explore on our own.

In other words, instead of justifying violence, he tempts us to better understand it. Essentially, the movie suggests it’s a combination of internal mental struggles, poor upbringing, and external pressures that leads to violent impulses and dire outcomes.

As such, Joker comes as a much-needed breath of fresh air, an audacious depiction of the well-known comic book material. It’s neither an action-packed CGI fest like The Avengers nor your typical R-rated meta-comedy along the lines of Deadpool.

Instead, Joker represents a gritty drama and character study of a troubled and deranged individual. You could say it’s an art-house movie on a mixture of crack and steroids. And I mean this in a most positive way.

I would also like to compliment the movie’s stunning visuals. There was hardly a shot that didn’t give me something to appreciate, be it rooms awash with subdued neon lighting, cityscape dominated by towering skyscrapers, or close-ups revealing subtle twitching of Arthur’s facial muscles.

The movie just looks amazing and it remains consistently spellbinding ’till the end credits roll. That’s what happens when you have a director with a crystal-clear vision and the boldness to see it through.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

It must be said that Joker is flawed and falls a little shy of being a masterpiece.

Its intensity and weirdness persist and sometimes to a fault. In my opinion, Phillips also borrows too much from Scorsese’s King of Comedy and Taxi Driver. I can really see why this works for some people and fails to deliver for others.

Also, the way it approaches mental illness and invokes sympathy for the main protagonist is controversial. It kind of makes a case that the only way for a marginalized looser to leave a mark on the world and get his due is to become an agent of destruction.

These aspects of the movie are precisely what got so many people upset. It didn’t bother me at all because I separate fiction from reality. I can relate to a deranged murderer in a movie and would still want this kind of individual behind bars in real life.

Art is often at its finest when it provokes us. I, for one, want movies to challenge and get me really thinking. In an age dominated by family-friendly flicks, why is it such a problem to have a sinister oddball like the Joker? Well, we already answered this question, but let’s hammer the point home.

It’s time for people to grow up and deal with the fact that not everyone wants another safe, archetypal story in which good prevails because, you know, good always does or something.

Danger Zone

If Joker was a poorly directed and technically incompetent movie, it wouldn’t have ignited nearly as much controversy as it did.

Simply put, it’s too good of a movie (judging by the less-than-high cinema standards of today) with uncomforting thematic beats and a serious tone. The violence feels real and isn’t some cartoonishly exaggerated spectacle. Phillips tempts us to face our own most harrowing self and for that, he should be commended.

If we continue to participate in the collective delusion that movies and video games cause violence, we’re condemning ourselves to eternal misery, similar to one that keeps citizens of Gotham in its clutches. This behavior has much deeper roots and we mustn’t fail to grasp them.

As for the Joker, it’s a movie we desperately need but perhaps don’t deserve. It’s powerful story leagues ahead of light generic entertainment flicks that make billions and get critical praise. It may have its faults and clumsy moments, but they don’t spoil the fun.

As Michael Moore puts it, there’s more danger for society in not seeing Joker than rushing to the cinemas. I couldn’t agree more. Just as Joker couldn’t put on a happy face and solve his problems, we cannot hope to fix the world by putting on rose-colored glasses. I sincerely wish we could.

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