At the time of me writing this Joker Review, it’s been over 5 hours since I watched it. I’m still processing everything that happened in it. The performance by Joaquin Phoenix that made it so gripping. The look and feel that made it so compelling. And I still have Frank Sinatra in my head singing, “Send In The Clowns.” And that to me is the greatest irony of Joker, because when we first heard of it coming out, we nearly revolted, and now we’re all wondering how we feel about it as a whole for entirely different reasons.
I’ll get to the more controversial elements that the media are highlighting a little later, but for now, let’s just talk about the movie, ok?
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
First and foremost, this is NOT a regular superhero movie, or anti-hero movie, or even a villain movie. Joker is something that is honestly hard to pin down. It’s a look at what society is, and what it can do to a man in the right and wrong circumstances. And it just so happens that the man we know as Arthur Fleck is going to become, or has become, one of the most violent killers in the history of media via Joker. And this is his story, whether you like that story or not…or what you believe or not…is up to you.
Director Todd Phillips (no relation) stated that when he looked at making Joker, he had one goal of not trying to any major Joker story. And I do believe him. However, there is one thread from arguably the most legendary Joker story that permeates throughout the film. In “The Killing Joke”, Joker tells Batman that all it takes is one bad day to break a man. To make him go dark. For Arthur Fleck, it takes more than one day, but each day adds more to his pain, his suffering, his outlook on life, and by the time he becomes Joker, you wonder if he’s honestly been him all along, and was just looking for a way out.
Without a doubt, the biggest reason that Joker works as a movie is Joaquin Phoenix. Love him or hate him as a person, you cannot deny his phenomenal ability as an actor. And he clearly put everything he had into being both Arthur Fleck and Joker. The way he talks, the way he laughs, the way he moves, the tiny little things that he does to show his emotions, it’s all very gripping. There’s a reason that he’s already getting Oscar buzz for this role. And if he wins, in my opinion, it would be much more deserving than Heath Ledger’s role as Joker. But that’s my thoughts on how great his performance was.
But why is it that it’s so gripping to watch him? It’s not just because of his performance, but the writing, the content, and the portrayal of the man known as Arthur Fleck. Here’s a guy living in a city that is dying, he’s taking care of his mother, the only one who really cares about him, and throughout everything he does, he can’t get anyone to really love him or respect him. They just don’t seem capable. He’s even accused of being a liar at his job after he got mugged by kids, even though he had the bruises to prove it.
And when things get worse, and things grow darker, and eventually lashes out and kills three punks on a train, he’s not the Joker yet. You see his mourning a bit, and then just as quickly, you see him dance in a bathroom. But he’s still not Joker.
Then, his world gets shattered with the single reading of a letter, and things he thought he knew about himself, about his mother, about his father, it’s all thrown into doubt. And that shattering brings him ever closer to his “destiny”, and that’s compelling. So when he dons the suit and the makeup that we saw in the trailers, and see him dancing on the stairs, you know what’s coming…and yet…you still don’t.
And for that, I am very grateful to Todd Phillips and his team. They not only made a movie that is very gorgeous to watch because of the cinematography, but one that is compelling to watch because of the twists and turns. So much so that by the end, many people are wondering what was real, what was fake, and what was “unreliable narrator”. Few films can get away with that, but Joker can.
But they also didn’t shy away from the darkness and uncomfortableness that is needed for a Joker movie. It’s Rated-R for a reason beyond language. Joaquin Phoenix basically starved himself so that he could look almost ill when he was being Joker. The violence is at times unexpected, and gruesome. Including a death at the end that I won’t spoil, but when I saw it I literally said out loud, “Holy!”
That’s good stuff when you don’t see stuff like that coming.
And even the twists were good. Like one that put seeds in your mind that Thomas Wayne might be Arthur Fleck’s real father. But then a few scenes later we’re given proof that this wasn’t the case. But…then a few scenes after that a small clue is presented that states this may not be the case. Again, what is truth, what is fake, and what is “unreliable narrator”? You will all have to make that decision for yourselves. Because what I see and think may not be the same for you.
Alright, so let’s get to one of the most important elements in this Joker Review, the thing that the media has been hammering on for weeks now. Is the Joker movie asking you to be sympathetic to the Joker? Is this a movie that glorifies violence?
In my opinion: No. It does not. Allow me to explain.
If we are counting the people that Joker kills in the film, just Joker, it comes to 6. Five of them are violent in their own rights, one is rather soft and done slightly off-screen. Compared to many of the other Jokers, that’s rather tame.
What’s more, despite all the talks of Fleck’s Joker causing “riots” and chaos in the streets, we only really see that three times. One is your basic protest, one is a misunderstanding caused by a fight between a cop and a pedestrian on a train, and the last one is full-on riot. And that last one is a direct result of a death Joker caused. So it’s not glorifying violence, it’s just showing the cause and effect of his actions.
And to be honest, you shouldn’t lose the message in the violence or the scenery. Not once does Joker really “glorify” what Arthur Fleck is doing, and as for “sympathizing” with him, it’s no different than what happens with Harvey Dent in the comics, or in Dark Knight. You can’t justify his killing those cops and threatening Gordon and his family, but you do sympathize because you understand the events of what led up to what happened.
That’s exactly what Phillips and Joaquin did with Arthur Fleck. They showed a man somewhat content with the life he had, willing to go through the motions, and then day after day he keeps getting knocked down, stepped on, called worthless, told no one gives a crap about him…and a person can only take that for so long.
There’s a reason that the Joker is one of the most beloved characters in DC Comics, and part of it is that we really don’t know who he is. He even said his origin story is a “multiple choice answer”, because we don’t know who exactly he is and what happened to him. In an arc in Detective Comics, they talk about the “Joker Effect”. How the Joker, for whatever reason, is able to get people to follow his lead, to be like him, to be the agents of chaos.
And that’s the point that the movie is trying to convey in my opinion. There’s a reason that this Joker is called “Arthur Fleck”, because it sounds like a boring person’s name. It’s not one tailor-made to be a pun, or sound important. It’s just an average name for an average guy, who honestly goes through average life things, and then cracks. Anyone could be the Joker under those circumstances, and our world has proven that this can happen.
A bad day, a bad week, a bad month, a bad year! Sometimes that is all it takes, and it’s tragic, and the Joker movie is willing to show that tragedy.
And to finish up that particular topic, while the tale is set in Gotham City like you would suspect, the way it’s depicted is just like New York City in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. When things were really dark, and grim, and no one seemed to care about anything but survival. Which is also a reference to how things are now if you think about it.
So, if you’ve forwarded to my score, you’ll see that it’s a 4/5. But why is that? I honestly could’ve gone higher, but this score needed to be lower for a simple reason. This film is not for everyone. And no, I don’t just mean because of the R-Rating, the violence, the language, or things like that. But rather, this is a film that will make you uncomfortable at times.
Part of it is the performance of Phoenix, part of it is the plot, part of it is in the ending and what it means, and so on and so forth. I liked this movie, a lot, I’m replaying it in my head as I write this review, and there’s a reason it won the highest award at the Venice Film Festival. But, that doesn’t mean everyone should or could watch it. It was always going to be divisive, and I feel that my score should reflect that this isn’t something everyone can enjoy, because it’s not a comic book movie. It’s a movie about life, and the terrible tragedy that can befall someone in the worst of circumstances.