- Movie Rating -

Joker (2019)

| October 6, 2019

I have every reason to suspect that 90% of people who go to see Joker this week will hate it.  I wouldn’t blame them.  This is not an audience-pleasing movie.  It is disturbing, unpleasant, violent, ugly and often difficult and therefore many will be turned off.  But I should add, I am not here to review the audience.  Their results are not my results and what they come away with is their own business.  Personally, I am always down for a challenge.  I can’t stand movies that pander to my supposed expectations or soft-peddle what is marketable at the moment.  I like a director who is an auteur, a person who displays his or her particular vision and then leaves it to my creative sensibilities to decipher what I have seen.

The best thing about Joker is that, from the very opening scenes, it challenges you to decide what you think about it.  It wallows in human tragedy, in the pangs of untreated mental illness and the disorganized social order that feeds a violent sociopath to bulldoze an unholy wall of destruction that it will be left to psychologists, psycho-analysist, historians and true crime addicts to figure out.  Todd Phillips is not playing to the marketing; he’s playing on a very specific note, a brave note of taking the dark tapestry present in the early work of Martin Scorsese (specifically Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy) and reframing them into the comic book genre.  Hollywood runs scared these days from movies this dark and disturbing, so name recognition is the game here. If this movie weren’t about The Joker then it wouldn’t be playing at your local theater every half hour. Sign of the times, I guess.

It was also a common sense move to build an origin story from scratch.  Unlike his masked adversary, Joker has such a differentiated series of origins that the public consciousness isn’t exactly cemented into a set of expected beats.  Here Joker is seen through the tragedy of Arthur Fleck (played by Joaquin Phoenix) a lonely, pathetic loser who is mentally ill, pushing 40, lives in a rotten tenement with his sick mother (played by Frances Conroy) and barely holds on to a part-time job as a performing clown. 

It doesn’t help that his environment is a hellhole of urban decay.  It’s 1981 and Gotham City (played by New York City) is in the middle of a garbage strike that local news report blame on a new plague of super-rats.  Arthur has fleeting dreams of being a stand-up comic but currently he takes little jobs like playing a clown twirling a sign for a failing business.  As an accurate portrait of his pathetic existence, his sign is stolen by street kids who then beat him up – and THEN he is called on the carpet by his boss for not returning the sign!  Only slightly worse is the fact that his indifferent county-appointed therapist is cutting  him off because of budget cuts that are largely blamed on the machinations of billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen).

Based on these events and a long-running series of heartbreaks and disappointments, largely fueled by his isolation, it is difficult to mentally map out exactly where Arthur’s mania will take him (this is not a predictable movie).  Will he become a vigilante?  A mass murderer?  A stalker?  A serial killer?  Will he just sit by and watch the world burn?  It’s hard to say because Phillips’ narrative through-line is such a nicely-paced piece of controlled chaos that the movie keeps overturning your expectations.  It is nice that, for once, a comic book movie isn’t aiming to build a franchise.  Phillips just wants to give us a mentally unbalanced man who becomes a maniac and give us a sense of how his mental illness fuels his actions.

What I admired about the film above all is that Arthur, despite the terror and mayhem that unfolds, is not inherently a bad person.  He’s a dangerous person whose mental illness is left unchecked, uncared for and ultimately abandoned.  He’s a lost soul, mired in an environment of violence, apathy and despair which leaves him free to move in a lot of unhealthy directions.  All those around him seem to be unknowingly and unconsciously feeding his madness which boils up into moments of shocking violence.

Even his goals seem out of sorts.  He has dreams of being a stand-up comic but given the chance, his mental condition takes over and he humiliates himself.  That culminates in a nice tribute to Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy when Arthur becomes fixated on his idol, a slick, smarmy and largely talentless Carson-like talk show host named Murray Franklin, played a miscast by Robert De Niro (seated behind the desk, he looks more like a mob boss than a host).  Never-the-less, I had to laugh to myself when I realized that Arthur’s appearance on Franklin’s show wasn’t the first awkward appearance that Phoenix has made on a talk show.

Phoenix, by the way, gives a masterful performance, a brave performance in which he isn’t afraid to look like a jerk.  He’s in every scene and to play a role like this requires a great deal of naked emotions.  I can’t imagine five other actors who would have played the role this well or taken the character to the lengths that are required.

You will noticed that I am mum about plot details.  There’s a lot to spoil here and I don’t want to give away too many surprises only to say that there are a few and some that I didn’t expect.  As you might imagine, yes, there is a connection to the bat, but it is not done in an overwrought way.  Actually, its kind of clever.  So, too, is a moment when Arthur doles out some vigilante justice that that explodes into an unintentional city-wide riot.  It’s done in such a clever way that it creates the Joker’s long-standing obsession with mass anarchy almost by accident.  I’ll say no more.

Alas, despite my admiration Joker is not a perfect movie.  It often wallows in its misery far beyond reason and takes some turns that seem better suited to Arthur’s fantasies then to his reality.  That’s mostly in the third act in which I thought that Phillips script made some choices that were executed largely because he couldn’t nail down an ending.

Your experience with Joker will mostly likely vary widely from my own. My admiration is just that – my admiration.  I suspect that most people will hate this film.  It’s too dark, too disturbing, too unsettling. But I’m up for the challenge. I admire a movie about a guy who wants to watch the world burn without the comfort of having heroes standing by with buckets of water.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2019) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized