Review - Joker
The time has finally come to discuss Joker: one of the most anticipated, talked about, and immediately controversial films to come from DC in a while (frankly they needed the attention). With its origin story of a Joker character warped and created by a violent and uncaring society, how much is this film trying to create sympathy for one of the evilest characters in history? How much does this film glorify violence as a means of political protest? And most importantly, is the film any good?
We follow Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) as the continued neglect of society and his increasing psychological decline causes his character to fully don the make-up of a clown and become the infamous Joker. All the while, tensions within other oppressed groups rise to the point of violent actions being caused that are looked upon in admiration and fear (depending on the person and their social class).
Let’s start with the part of the film everyone will agree on: Joaquin Phoenix. While being mocked early on after the casting announcement, it’s now hard to dispute the idea of this performance being one of (if not), the greatest Joker performances of all time.
First of all, the performance is just terrifying. The sudden bursts of laughter are so unsettling that it creates a large sense of tension in any scene that he’s in. He also has a remarkable talent for making his smile seem like a murderous frown at times which just adds to the scare factor (especially when he does it in clown make-up, adding the additional dimension of the tears of a clown motif throughout). When this is added to the small nuanced movements, subdued voice throughout the majority, and awkward body positioning that he does, it makes for one dark performance.
The major piece of advice I would have about this film going into it is that you need to be in the right mindset when watching. This is possibly the bleakest comic book film that’s been released in a while. The story follows Arthur’s descent into madness and his continued alienation from the societal acceptance that he craves which is shown in such graphic detail that it gets hard to bare from time to time.
If you’re prepared, the artistic flair in which the entire film presents itself allows you to appreciate the sense of awkwardness created. If you’re not, then you will suffer.
One of the reasons that the film becomes so unsettling is because of a technique known as ‘the unreliable narrator’ that Joker uses throughout. The entire film is told through the perspective of Fleck and it’s made clear to us how mentally and emotionally unstable he is.
The subplot involving Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) even directly confronts this idea where there are two versions of events told to him by characters and he’s battling with himself as to which one is true. There are various times where scenes presented are clearly one of Fleck’s delusional fantasies which adds to the uneasy sensation. This continues to happen until you get to a point where it’s very unclear which scenes presented are real or not. With scenes that even trick you into believing that others you thought were false were actually true.
This makes trying to point out plot holes a lot harder because you could use the argument of ‘well how do we know that any of that was real?’ It messes with you on a psychological level. I find it reminiscent of the Game Cube game Eternal Darkness where the game developers purposefully wanted people to question their own sanity at times. A rather fitting message for this film as a whole if you think about it.
Cast wise, while Phoenix does steal the show, but there are a series of good performances. Robert De Niro’s Murray Franklin is a natural fit for him. Seeing De Niro handle a talk show opening monologue with such ease and hilarity with his incredibly memorable smirk begs the question as to when he should get his own show: it’s that believable. He loses this unique quality later on when his character tries to take on more serious issues above his position, reverting De Niro into his standard hard-man talking mentality of previous films, but it doesn’t undermine the genuine enjoyment that can be gleaned from his performance.
Zazie Beetz plays Sophie, a love interest for Arthur. Her performance is fairly standard, but that’s exceptional for a film like this where you’re grasping for any signs of reality. She plays the character with a good sense of understanding and outright terrified so effortlessly that it helps draw you into the world a lot more.
If there’s any weakness for me in this film, it would most likely be the way it handles the larger issues of the film. It starts off strong by using news reports to demonstrate why there would be a growing resentment within Gotham, with the garbage strikes and "Super Rats" roaming the street (evident with most scenes being filled with trash bags and the occasional rat running across the screen). It would be nice to see more of this demonstrated, rather than one or two lines of dialogue suggesting that the government don’t care about the people.
The intensity of the rebellious thoughts do show this more when the first murders are committed by the Joker and the people support it, but when it reaches the end, and the morals are spelt out so plainly (especially by the ‘you get what you deserve’ line uttered by several characters), you can’t help but feel that some of these morals are a bit heavy-handed in their approach. Granted, it’s not enough to fully take you out of the moment, but it’s worth addressing.
Violence is the main talking point around this film so it needs to be addressed here. Frankly, I was expecting more. Based on what the internet was partly raging about and given the history of the Joker as a character, I was expecting a lot more unnecessary and gory shots.
The worst of it we really get are a couple of headshots and one gruesome beating and that’s it. Please don’t let the idea of this film being too violent put you off from seeing it: it’s just not! It’s also farcical to say that this film is glorifying violence: it’s just not! Anyone who walks away from Joker thinking that it justifies murder because of Government neglect has sorely missed the point and needs to learn the phrase ‘cautionary tale’.
Given that Fleck’s character never meant to create this movement, and constantly renounces the idea of having a motif, it’s hard to say that it’s a glorification or anything of the sort. It’s a story of what happens when you push people down so much: they push back…
I really don’t know how to describe my relationship with Joker. It feels twisted to turn around after feeling tense and disturbed for 2 hours and say ‘I loved it!’ but it’s certainly deserving of the highest praise. With one of the stand-out performances of the year, excellent tension and thought-provoking elements throughout, DC should be proud to once again have audiences with a smile on their face.