I feel almost an obligation to write this review of Joker. Why you ask? Not only was it a bold, well crafted piece of storytelling, but I have noticed the smaller fraction of people who did not like the movie seem to be more vocal than others. In many cases, the movie’s biggest detractors admitted they had not seen Joker.
As a rule I try to avoid loud criticism until I experience something for myself. That is why I hope this spoiler free review will encourage you to see Joker. I urge you to see it while it is in theaters as well. This truly is a movie that benefits from being seen in a communal atmosphere.
Unless you have been hiding out in a cave somewhere, you know that Joker is an origin story of the well known Batman villain. Joaquin Phoenix (“Her”, “Gladiator”) is garnering some well earned Oscar buzz for his portrayal of Arthur Fleck, a down and out entertainer who is transformed into the Joker over the course of the story.
Phoenix lost around 52 lbs for the role, this sickly look and his chain smoking really colors this character with broad brush.
Joaquin Phoenix used all at his disposal to elevate each scene, much to the encouragement of the director and co-writer Todd Phillips. There are many influences at work here, such as two scenes that echo Taxi Driver.
One of these scenes is a dark comedy twist on the famous “you talkin’ to me?” moment. Phoenix has said that scene was found on the day. When a crew member involved with the props said “well, you have this gun,” and that pushed the scene in a new direction.
Another Martin Scorsese movie with clear parallels to Joker, is The King Of Comedy. In that film Robert De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a man who is obsessed with a talk show host and will do anything to be part of his life.
In Joker, De Niro plays talk show host Murray Franklin in a strong piece of clever casting. Without spoiling anything, I can say this element was a surprising twist that played well.
Full disclosure here, I have not read the Batman comics. So I am not a scholar on Joker lore. I do know the movie takes some elements from the 1988 comic “The Killing Joke.” Such as the Joker being a failed stand up comedian.
I overheard one guy who saw the movie say “the most horrifying scene was when he bombed on stage as a comedian.” Even though he said this in jest, that scene, like many others, makes you uncomfortable and goes a long way to inform this character.
As for the movie’s treatment of this origin story, I have been told that just like the movie, any telling of Joker’s origins employs an unreliable narrator technique, so who’s to say what the truth is. In that sense, the filmmakers had free reign to tell this origin story and make it their own.
Let’s dive into the criticisms I hear from others shall we? (Well, going to do it anyway.)
Number 1: Controversy has surrounded Joker because some believe it glorifies violence and may add to the violence in the real world. To address that complaint, I have to reference another studio film that sparked this violence debate, the 1999 cult classic Fight Club.
Remember how people were in a panic saying this movie will inspire copycats, people will start fight clubs around the world. Guess what…. it didn’t happen. Fight Club was a huge hit and the world kept on turning.
I feel this is an apt comparison to the violence in Joker. Adults are able to understand that this is a work of fiction and know the difference between right and wrong.
The sad truth is the people who are disturbed enough to unleash large scale violence will latch onto anything to justify their actions. The Son of Sam killer said his dog told him to do it, does that mean we should put a ban on pet adoption?
I have heard some people have say “they said this movie was so violent, I really did not think it was that violent.” Let me speak to this. In terms of extremely violent horror films people have seen, Joker is not nearly as violent by comparison.
But, the shocking way Joker blends moments of violence with dark comedy makes some people comment on the movie in a way that inflates the violence. It should also be noted that the scenes that do contain violence, depict it bluntly, with a chilling affect.
As for what some claim is an irresponsible treatment of violence in the film, I disagree. The basis of any great antagonist is that they feel they are doing the right thing. Certainly the case in Fleck’s warped state of mind, fueled by the pathos that surrounds him.
Another sign of a well written villain is that they are not one dimensional, they have been though a lot and blur the line between drawing your sympathy and hatred towards them. Joaquin Phoenix walks that thin line with precision.
Director Todd Phillips had this to say about the violence in Joker: “….. to me it seems actually very responsible to make it [the violence] feel real and make it have weight and implication.”
Number 2: The age difference between Arthur Fleck and another charter in this story does not work within the canon. At this time Joaquin Phoenix is 44. The character intentionally looks malnourished, pale and chain smokes. All of these things tend to make people look older. In that sense we can pretend that Arthur is 12 years younger than the actor himself.
If you are able to take that small leap as I did, everything in the movie is plausible. I know it can be hard to separate an actor from the roles they play, but give it a try. I am sure that is what actors hope for, they do all they can to embody someone else, to not be themselves. Take that journey with them.
Number 3: Why make this a joker story? This was a sneaky way to attract attention to a movie just by making it about Joker? My guess is anyone who has this complaint does not have first hand experience with producing movies in the state the the industry is today.
That is not their fault. Here is the way I see it. Joker was made on an estimated budget of 55 million. This movie is a fresh and bold departure from the long run of comic book movies the studios have been giving us.
I’m not saying The Avengers is not a great movie, it was. But this PG-13 story allowed the studio to flip the bill for over 220 million for the production budget.
The only way a studio would make a movie as radical, nihilistic and dark as Joker was because it was tied to the Batman franchise, and because it could be made for a low budget. In that sense I applaud Todd Phillips and the other credited writer Scott Silver for building a train that could leave the station.
Another example of how these ends justify the means is the contained thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane. I thought that too was a refreshing example of a low budget movie that sadly, studios avoid making like they were the plague. You may be surprised to learn that 10 Cloverfield Lane was originally a script called The Cellar and had nothing to do with the Cloverfield franchise.
Famed producer J.J. Abrams knew the movie could not get made on a studio level unless it fit within a franchise. They made some changes so it would be set in the world Cloverfield created and the rest is history.
Joker touches upon major issues we currently face as a society, such as poverty, a general lack of compassion, and the way we treat people with mental illness.
The story does this without being overt or preachy about it. The fact that the movie has these layers makes me happy it is raking in money at the box office. People have proven there is a need for movies like this. My hope is studios will start to make room for it, the way Blumhouse has for years.
Perhaps that is where some of these negative reviews are coming from, a personal or political rejection to what is explored in this movie. One thing is for sure, the greatest works of art have a long history of causing discussion and even controversy. Joker, no doubt is an impactful movie that makes the viewer think and feel. Some may have an allergic reaction.
Todd Phillips did an incredible job directing this movie, a huge departure from his earlier work (“The Hangover”, “Old School” and “Road Trip”). Joaquin Phoenix was transformative in his portrayal of these duel personas of Arthur Fleck and the Joker.
The grime and desperation of a major city has never been so beautifully shot as we see in Joker. Much credit is given to Cinematographer Lawrence Sher.
The score is equally as moving and on point. All these elements work together in perfect harmony to service the story. It is a real victory when a movie operates on this level, and Joker does.
My final take away is this: Many of these things that caused controversy and ire in response to Joker, are the very same things which made me and countless others love the movie.
The irony is, the running theme of Joker is about the rift that cuts between us. A rift based on assumptions and status, classicism, fame and appearances. That only begs the question….. who gets the last laugh here?
Curt Wiser is a published author and the writer director of the suspense movie Cam-Girl. He is happy to share a kind word about the work of other artist. Because he has a unique perspective as a filmmaker.