Movie Review: Joker
By Matthew Huntley
October 20, 2019
Oh, what a dark, sad and depressing film this is. And yet, this is apparently what “Joker” strives to be, but in its quest (and ultimate achievement) to unsettle the audience, it causes a dilemma for film critics. On the one hand, it’s arguably well made, performed, and engaging as a grim and tragic character study. Its darkness and coldness are often hard to bear, but they are nonetheless effective, and one of our urges upon leaving the theater is to commend the filmmakers and actors for involving us in such a twisted tale, even if it is perverse. On the other hand, the question lingering in our minds is, what’s the point?
To be sure, “Joker” has merit, not least that it finally gives Batman’s most infamous and, dare I say, beloved nemesis his own, dedicated feature, and it suggests how the Joker may have evolved into one of Gotham City’s most merciless and anarchistic villains. The screenplay by director Todd Phillips and Scott Silver is unique in the sense that it goes outside the boundaries of a typical superhero movie, although the theater at which I saw it made it abundantly clear “Joker” is not your typical superhero movie, if it’s even one at all. This is a hard, deservedly R-rated psychological drama that Phillips has said “picks and chooses” from a long line of previous Joker media, including preceding movies, comic books and TV shows.
Could “Joker” be considered a prequel to “The Dark Knight,” which featured an indelible Heath Ledger as the warped, maniacal figure? Could it be a loose adaptation of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s much-lauded graphic novel, “Batman: The Killing Joke”? Yes and no, and the idea that Phillips and Silver’s script is deliberately open to interpretation as far as where the Joker character came from, and where he goes after the movie ends, makes it all the more interesting and gives us the freedom to evaluate it without feeling like it has to necessarily connect with other Batman/Joker lore. “Joker” is both associated and disassociated from previous texts containing the same characters and ideas, but the film makes it clear the degree to which it is or isn’t doesn’t matter. It ultimately tells its own story, and we should assess it as such.
Just as the film is confident on a narrative level, it’s also bold and unapologetic on a visual one. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher and production designer Mark Friedberg, the latter of whom helped make “If Beale Street Could Talk” so wonderfully composed and distinct, pull no punches in creating a dirty, shuddersome, claustrophobic Gotham City, one that feels trapped by overcast skies, graffiti-laden buildings, mounds of garbage, scurrying rats and crowds of cheerless people piling into subway cars. We’ve seen Gotham depicted as a dark, dismal place before, but this particular version is especially hard-hitting because it’s so gritty, grounded and raw, and it’s unfortunately probably not too far removed from real-life cities we live in everyday (principal photography took place in New York City, Jersey City and Newark). The atmosphere of this movie is off-putting yet absorbing.
Another virtue, of course, is Joaquin Phoenix’s startling performance as the titular character. Phoenix has proven his range and abilities many times before, but that doesn’t mean we can take them for granted or they deserve any less praise when he once again embraces a new role. And just like Heath Ledger, to whom he’ll will mostly likely be most compared, Phoenix takes a spotlighted pop culture icon and gives him a new dimension, the likes of which we haven’t seen on-screen before. Even though I had no misgivings about whether Phoenix could pull the character off, I was still amazed that my memories of his previous performances melted away because I so fixated on this one.
Phoenix has literally transformed himself, and not just physically (he reportedly lost 52 pounds for the part) but mentally, it seems. He plays Arthur Fleck, a lonely, down-on-his-luck “professional” clown and wannabe standup comedian. By day, he’s on the streets flipping “For Sale” signs on sidewalks outside appliance stores; by night, he’s cooking TV dinners for his hermit mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), who spends all day in their noisy, rodent-infested, high-rise apartment. Arthur smokes more than he eats; he laughs uncontrollably in public (at which point he hands onlookers a card that lets them know he has a condition); and once a week he attends an unfruitful session with a social worker, with whom he shares his book of jokes that are anything but funny.
Arthur’s dream is to one day tell his jokes on “Live! With Murray Franklin,” Gotham’s equivalent of “The Tonight Show,” with Robert De Niro as the beloved host. The idea of being the focus of attention on Murray’s show is Arthur’s one source of solace and it’s what he clings to in a world that fails to notice or care about him. He has no friends; his colleagues and boss think he’s weird; the woman down the hall, Sophie (Zazie Beetz), tosses him a light smile but Arthur grossly misinterprets it; and his mother clings to the idea that millionaire tycoon Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), father of future Caped Crusader Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson), will one day answer her letters and save Gotham City from destroying itself.
Arthur is one of the saddest, most pathetic figures in recent movie memory, and even though he’s also grotesque in many ways, he garners our sympathy more than anything else and we hear him. We also cry for Arthur and his situation and hope and pray he’ll one day get the help he so desperately needs.
Whether Arthur eventually gets that help and just how close he comes to fulfilling his standup comedy dream, I’ll not reveal, but, like I said, this not your typical superhero movie, so don’t expect it to follow any sort of traditional, “hero triumphs over villain” path. It is extremely dark, violent and unnerving. As Arthur’s transition from lonely soul to delusional killer spirals out of control, we jump, cringe and grow depressed because of what happens on-screen. However, “Joker” doesn’t offend us. The more time I’ve had to think about it, the more I’ve accepted the film is not gratuitous with its cynicism, violence and mayhem, of which there is a lot; rather, its cynicism, violence and mayhem are part of the story.
With that being said, and despite its admirable production and acting qualities, I struggle to find an overall purpose for “Joker.” It’s a bit of paradox because while the film did get me to think and feel for the poor man at its center, and even though I empathized with all the characters and their dire situations, I walked away from it with a void in my heart and in my mind. I’m still not entirely sure why, but I’m thinking it has to do with the film simply being too disheartening and leaving too much up to the audience to decide what’s real and what’s not.
I understand the filmmakers not wanting to tell us what to think, but I guess I still needed to know what they themselves thought of the Joker, his circumstances and his behavior, just so I could better gauge the angle from which the film was coming and then form my own thoughts based on that. This isn’t the case for every movie I see, but it is for “Joker.” Phillips and his team bring a lot of ideas to the table and they’re willing to start a conversation about such big topics as income inequality, pollution, mental health and vigilantism, but they seem hesitant to really participate or take a stance on these subjects, and their lack of participation made me feel cheated and unfulfilled. I needed them to do more than just present the issues.
It goes without saying the most effective stories, no matter how dark or open-ended, make us feel that what we’ve been told has been worth our time. Or better yet, they urge us to re-examine who we are, what we think and/or who we want to become. In other words, they have some sort of relevance, even if it’s just serving as entertainment. “Joker,” for everything it does effectively, fails to give us that sense to a high enough degree. I stand by what I praised about it, but I can’t say I found it terribly relevant or that I’m better off for having seen it.