EDITOR'S NOTE: 2019's “Joker” is not your average superhero movie or the typical way the classic villain has been portrayed. As an R-rated solo film depicting the rise of Joker's prominence and decrepit nature in Gotham City, reviews for the film's indecency and overall discomfort it causes skewed its marks across the board. Overall, it is a must-see film of 2019. Check out differing reviews by current Vidette blogger Sean Newgent and former Vidette features editor Stuart Stalter.
Joker is a movie I feel will only be remembered for the manufactured controversy surrounding it.
As filmgoers flock to the theater to see the origin story of Batman’s greatest villain, the media continues to perpetuate the idea that somehow a movie about a sociopath ostracized from society is too much for our delicate cultural sensibilities.
Considering the mass shootings of the past decade and especially because a Batman movie has been the target of a person with parallels to Joker’s character, the media and critics are quick to judge the movie.
Having seen the movie, I am happy to carefully judge it considering the controversies and what it presents.
From the outset “Joker” wears its inspiration on its sleeve with the ’70s Warner Brothers logo. From that to a dirty, ugly room where the radio is talking about Gotham’s rat infestation there’s an obviousness to the fact “Joker” is emulating “Taxi Driver” and “Midnight Cowboy” — crime movies of the late ’60s and ’70s that portrayed New York City as a trash-ridden and seedy place where the outcasts of the world try to find direction. That inspiration is refreshing at first, there are too many parallels as the film plays out.
“Joker” is a simple story when all is said and done. Arthur Fleck is a mentally challenged man who explodes into bouts of uncontrollable laughter when seeing unfunny things.
Basically, it’s his coping mechanism. He’s a stick-thin, very creepy looking guy who works as a clown. He is assaulted by the unforgiving people of Gotham and returns nightly from an uncaring city to a house where his mother has an unhealthy obsession with Gotham’s premier billionaire, Thomas Wayne.
The beats of the first two acts of the movie are too familiar, and most viewers should see the twists coming from a mile away. Not to say these acts are bad, they just aren’t as effective as they want to be. Arthur’s relationship to the violence he commits isn’t explored far enough early on, and much of what happens feels very hollow, held up only by the exceptional performance of Joaquin Phoenix. He’s creepy and weird and in that regard the movie can be hard to watch.
But the movie’s message is extremely muddled. Arthur goes to a psychiatrist who prescribes him his medications, but about midway through the movie she tells him that the city has stopped funding the program because the rich and powerful don’t care about those with mental issues or the organizations that help them.
It’s an interesting position for the movie to explore, but it never does. The movie assumes that the viewer hates authority, hates politicians and the rich. So instead of exploring issues in a deeper context, Joker brings up issues and topics but lets the viewer fill in the meaning with their own prejudices. This could be interpretive if both sides were explored. In this case, it feels lazy and surface level.
This is most prevalent when the clown mask becomes a kind of “V for Vendetta” style symbol of anti-authority. Arthur killed stock traders while wearing clown makeup, and clowns have become a symbol for the down and out to revolt against the bourgeoisie of Gotham.
So, is the movie vilifying Arthur for being a murderer? Or is it celebrating anti-authority violence? Is it saying society has an obligation to help the mentally ill? Or is it applauding vigilante justice?
These questions are a few of the many questions I had walking out of the theater. I don’t understand what “Joker” wanted me to take away from it. The descent into insanity of a lonely man in an uncaring world leading him to become a murderer is the plot of “Taxi Driver,” but “Taxi Driver” didn’t make Robert de Niro’s character into a symbol of revolution or anything more than a man fed up with the world.
Another, more recent example is the 2011 independent film “God Bless America,” in which a divorced dad who spends his days listening to shallow coworkers and watching unintelligent television is fired from his job.
Suicide seems the answer to him, but instead he decides he’d rather die after killing the people who made his life so miserable. Though the movie is a dark comedy, you aren’t supposed to empathize with the character, and he never becomes more than just a sociopath.
The third act of “Joker” is good. When Arthur finally puts the Joker paint on and prepares himself for his big reveal the pace picks up, and I was engaged wholly. But again, the final message of the movie left me scratching my head.
If “Joker” was meant to condemn Arthur, he wouldn’t be standing tall over a group of clown-masked rioters in the streets of a burning Gotham. There’s friction between Arthur obviously being a villain, yet also being applauded as a hero of social justice … again, it’s not well-executed at all. Were the movie’s tone more like a comic book, having Joker stand over Gotham crime would be fine — he’s the Clown Prince of Crime. But “Joker” is not a comic book film in the traditional sense, it’s a character movie. And as such, it should have been more careful with how it handled these moments.
Other issues I had with the movie come down to minor things. I felt the music choices lacked subtlety, the use of computer-generated blood pulled me out of what should have been intense scenes (see the last moments of Taxi Driver if you want to know how much more effective practical effects are in a similar scene), there were flashback sequences that didn’t need to be there and the film assumed the audience was too dull to understand a twist.
A case-in-point for lack of subtlety is when Thomas Wayne and the rich people of Gotham attend a theater showing a Charlie Chaplin movie. It’s the 1970s, and a bunch of wealthy people in tuxedos are at a Chaplin screening that’s high profile enough the clown-masked protestors are outside?
It’s only there because Chaplin was a comic and Arthur is a comic who bumbles around like “The Tramp.” It could have just been an opera performance or something a little less contrived.
Also, when Phoenix finally becomes Joker, he changes his voice, and it sounds a lot like a character in one of John Waters’ old Baltimore films. Those familiar with the classic filth of Pink Flamingos will know why that is a little off-putting.
I didn’t hate “Joker,” but I wasn’t impressed with anything except the acting (and even then, Heath Ledger is still better). “Joker” lacks any sort of originality, the controversial elements have been explored in better movies, the message is unclear and ultimately, I walked away uninspired.
It is commendable to release a wide-audience hard-R crime movie in the style of “Joker.” I can’t name the last time there has even been a movie with the same look and tone. But to replace all the Batman-related elements and have this be a movie unrelated to the Joker, (which would be pretty easy to do) it would have nowhere near the acclaim or buzz it is garnering.