JOKER (4.5 out of 5) Directed by Todd Phillips; Screenplay by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver; Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Rober De Niro, Zazie Beetz, and Francis Conroy; Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images; Running time 121 minutes; In wide release October 4, 2019.
Batman’s ultimate foil and arguably one of the greatest villains of all time. His unspeakable acts have rivaled even those of history’s worst, and he continues to find new ways to torment the Bat-Family and all of Gotham. With such a storied past, little is known of his origin. We get a non-canonical glimpse in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, but even that has been tossed aside as a one-off and not his true story. Todd Phillips’ Joker delves into his beginnings and gives us a sympathetic look at a simple guy who eventually cracks and becomes the evil we have come to know. And as that metamorphosis takes place, our sympathy turns to horror upon seeing the depths one man can sink to.
BSR writers Adam McDonald and Rebecca Frost weigh in…
Adam: I’ll be the first to say that I was a naysayer when Joker was announced. My first reaction was “because nobody asked for it…” and adding on the fact that the director was the guy who made one good Hangover movie and not much else, I felt this was going to be a train wreck. Then the first trailer dropped, and I was immediately hooked. Joker ties with Darth Vader as my favorite bad guy of all time, so explaining his origins in a somewhat realistic way was something I wanted but never thought I would get to see. Immediately upon its first viewing at the Venice Film Festival (where it got an eight-minute standing ovation and won the top award), some in the media were decrying its violence and possible draw to incels and the extreme right who have taken his persona as a rallying cry. So I went in wondering how this and mental health would be addressed. Very well, actually. This is a tale of a broken man whose world is shattered over and over again until his paradigm shifts, and he begins to view everything as just one big joke, and the punchline is violence.
Rebecca: I was (and still am, actually) definitely the person who didn’t care too much to see a Joker movie. He’s been done and I don’t want to see a movie like Joker get popular with the antagonist-worshipping crowd. But, as much as I hate to say it, I sincerely really enjoyed Joker. I had high expectations. I knew it was going to lean heavily on mental illness which I consider a lazy trope when mishandled and while I adore Joaquin Phoenix, he has a flair for pretentious dramatics that I like to ignore. I believe Todd Phillips made a thoughtful movie. Shallow, yes. But considerate.
Adam: Let’s talk about Joaquin Phoenix for a moment. There has been a lot of talk about the amount of weight he lost for the role, but that only goes so far in his masterful portrayal of the character. Every movement and tick he expresses has a purpose. The physical pain he shows while trying to hide his unwanted maniacal laughter almost hurts us to watch. While dancing to the orchestra playing only in his head, we get a sense of the relief he’s trying desperately to find but never does. And his evolution from a society castoff to a stone-cold killer never seems forced or out of character; he forces us to walk a mile in his shoes that feels like hundreds.
Rebecca: He was PHENOMENAL! I can see why people will say he’s “acting his ass off” and yeah, I get it. But I think he did an amazing job of representing different phases of mental states. The results of not taking his medications isn’t even the forefront issue, it’s hardly addressed. It’s a subtle force that drives his character forward.
Adam: As someone who struggles with mental health issues, I was supremely worried that they would put too much or the wrong focus on Arthur’s mental problems as well. I was genuinely happy to see that this wasn’t the case. Yes, he does deal with what turns into psychosis, but his expression around that is exactly how I have felt in the past. In his journal, he writes, “The worst part about having a mental illness is that everyone expects you to behave like you don’t,” and that’s a huge problem in culture today. The stigma around mental health still runs deep in society, and it’s something we all need to work on.
Rebecca: I do agree with other critics that Phillips tried to add too much to his story. Joker has layer upon layer of topical conversation pieces–the dangers of a failing healthcare system and the harm it does to those without access, the wealth disparity, how someone can be one bad day away from ruining their life, and the casualties of going viral. A scene that features an audience of 1-percenters laughing at a film is framed just so, with the audience facing us, the actual audience. Is Phillips’s intention to make us feel like many of Gotham’s residents? To make us feel laughed at by the wealthy?
Adam: One bad day away from being a bad guy shows how Joker looked to Killing Joke for inspiration. I mean, honestly, can we blame him for snapping after all the horrible things he went through in just a period of days? It doesn’t excuse his actions, but could any of us say we wouldn’t lose it under those circumstances? And yes, I love the fact that it holds a mirror up to us and asks us hard questions we don’t want to think about or answer. Even though you and I are far from the 1%, we still come from a place of privilege compared to the plights of all too many real people who find themselves in the same place as Arthur – less than one paycheck from being homeless, trod on by everyone and thing surrounding them, and suffering from medical problems that no one will help them with. So how do we fix these problems? Well, there isn’t anyone, concrete answer, but hopefully, that is a discussion this movie can start.
Rebecca: Unintentionally, I think Phillips Chekov’s Gunned himself. Arthur finds himself struggling to do comedy in a world that doesn’t quite understand him, so he studies others to try and adapt. But in the real world, Phillips cries out about cancel culture and comedy that has evolved and can’t admit that he hasn’t tried to evolve or adapt. He created this movie as a response, which in turn held up the mirror to himself and here we are with a thousand mirrors reflecting back on each other.
Adam: And it’s only right that the Joker is trying to be a stand-up comedian; the idea that all of life is a joke is pretty much the fuel for his mentality. If the only saving grace to the BS that is this world is to laugh at it all, then he’s going to laugh the hardest. I know you said that there was too much to the story, and I agree that there is a lot packed into it, but I don’t really know what could have been left out without damaging the story. My biggest complaint about most movies is that they are 15 minutes too long, but I didn’t feel that way about Joker. One of the best examples of a film that had absolutely no fat on it was Drive, and this one stands aside it as another.
Rebecca: Joker also doesn’t rely on gore and violence to tell a story, which is actually refreshing. The violence is somewhat minimal, so when we do see it the impact hits much harder.
Adam: Yes! Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for blood-soaked films like John Wick and the like, but there’s no doubt it desensitizes us to the violence when it’s in your face for two-plus hours. The rare moments of brutality shown do indeed shock us because we’re not expecting it. Even though it’s foreshadowed, it still impacts strongly because nothing else relies on it to propel the plot.
Rebecca: In the end, I’ve enjoyed watching the reviews roll in because none of them are the same. Critics seem to fall on either end of the spectrum–either loving Joker or hating it. It’s how we respond to our feelings that will make all the difference. Are we going to go on a brutal slapping spree because we loved it and we think everyone else should? No, not at all. But, I can’t speak for every viewer. 4 out of 5
Adam: What’s funny, is I’ve been doing the same. I rarely read other reviews except from critics like you or my other local peers, but I’ve cast a net and read a good dozen of them from around the world, and there is no middle ground here, and many reviews are judging people for wanting or not wanting to see it. Personally, I found Joker to be a near-masterpiece and one of my favorite movies of the year, but I’ll be the last to look down on someone who has no desire to see it for whatever reason. But you really should, and not just because it is a magnificent piece of cinema, but also because it shows us the seedy underbelly of our culture that we try to forget exists but needs to be confronted or we will eventually doom ourselves. 5 out of 5