Dan's Review: "Joker" a well-made, disturbing character study
Oct 02, 2019 12:46PM
● By Dan Metcalf
Joaquin Phoenix in Joker - © 2019 Warner Bros.
Joker (Warner Bros.)
Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language, and brief sexual images.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Douglas Hodge, Dante Pereira-Olson, Marc Maron, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, Glenn Fleshler, Murphy Guyer, Bryan Callen, Brian Tyree Henry, Josh Pais.
Written by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver.
Directed by Todd Phillips.
The term “comic book” denotes comedy, yet most of such books have little to do with provoking laughter. The very idea of the “comic” aspect of the medium has been replaced by dark narratives, depicting worlds overwhelmed by evil acts, ideas, and movements. They are worlds not necessarily yoked with the simple premise of “good versus evil” and more appropriately mired with “how do we deal with all this evil?” This is perhaps the basis for Todd Phillips’ new film Joker, in which the main character, riddled by tragic circumstances sadly asserts “I used to think my life was a tragedy, but now I know it’s a comedy.”
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a failed comedian-turned street clown, dealing with an ailing mother (Frances Conroy), mental illness, bullying, and overmedication from ineffective social programs. After being bullied by three “Wall Street” bros on the subway, Fleck snaps and kills them, using a handgun loaned to him by a co-worker at the clown agency. The murder victims were all employees of Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), a billionaire and father to a young boy named Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson), prompting the magnate to run for mayor and clean up the streets of Gotham. In Fleck’s disturbed state, he imagines a father figure in late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), modeled after Johnny Carson (the film is set sometime around 1980). He also pursues a relationship with Sophie (Zazie Beets), a single mom who lives on the same floor of his dilapidated apartment building. Instead of causing societal outrage, Fleck’s subway murders inspire a movement of frustrated, forgotten masses to rail against Gotham’s wealthy by donning clown masks/makeup and acting out more violence through protests, riots, looting, and burning limousines. When Fleck’s attempt at standup comedy during an open mic night at a local club goes viral, Murray Franklin uses the video clip to of the performance to ridicule him for cheap laughs on his show. The clip gains more attention, prompting Murray to invite Fleck as a guest on his show. Fleck uses the opportunity to make a major, violent statement on national TV, sparking more riots in the streets and launching him into what will become an iconic career as the famed Joker, a criminal mastermind and future rival to a certain caped-crusader-in-waiting.
While Joker is an “origin story,” it is not necessarily a Batman one, nor intended to be part of any DC-Cinematic Universe, past, present or future. In fact, it is so divorced from the Batman universe that it flips the script, making the Wayne family as the source of evil and the Joker as a victim of “the greedy rich.”
Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Joker is brilliant, yet altogether disturbing. Instead of taking on the famed villain by simply acting crazy (I’m looking at you, Jared Leto), Phoenix gives a layered perspective that shows how mental illness and other circumstances can slowly build a criminal mastermind. There’s a duplicitous aspect of Joaquin’s portrayal of mental illness. On the one hand, it gives voice to those who suffer from mental illness as individuals who need to be seen, understood, and treated with some sense of humanity. On the other hand, Joker also seems to warn that anyone with a mental illness has the capacity or probability of becoming a monster, which troubles me, since I know several people who suffer from some sort of mental illness and do not deserve such suspicion.
Another troubling characteristic of Todd Phillip’s new Joker narrative is the suggestion of the wealthy being the root of so much societal rage, to the point that we see Bruce Wayne’s parents “getting what they deserve” rather than their deaths becoming an impetus for justice. It’s this same idea that has caused so much concern over the movie being an inspiration for mass shootings, perhaps triggering more hopeless, disturbed people to take up violence as the only answer to their skewed societal views. To those who worry about cause-and-effect consequences, I say (in my opinion) it’s only a movie, and people who have the capacity or inclination to commit such crimes will do so with or without movies as inspiration.
I also wonder how the depiction of masked mobs rising up against the wealthy elite while holding “RESIST” signs could be less subtle and I sense an underlying commentary at play, here. Joker also marks a significant departure for Todd Phillips, who made his mark creating zany comedies like Old School and The Hangover trilogy. According to one interview, he said his pivot comes from the contemporary and pervasive “woke” culture that makes comedy impossible, with filmmakers wary of offending any sensibilities over the fear of being canceled by angry Twitter mobs. The irony of making a movie about violent, masked, angry resistance mobs is perhaps lost in the fog over angry loners and mass killing controversies.
All societal debate aside, Joker is a disturbing character study rather than a comic book adventure. Moreover, the movie is well-done and thought-provoking, with a superb performance from Phoenix. While it may not be part of any DC Cinematic Universe, Phoenix’s Joker is perhaps a fitting origin for Heath Ledger’s equally brilliant bookend performance as the famed supervillain in The Dark Knight. It may not be your standard comic book movie and its brutality may be hard to watch, but Joker is a film that succeeds in its mission to spark debate or at the very least, give a little more perspective into the concept of “evil.”