Why so serious?
Apparently, there is some controversy surrounding the new film Joker. I had no idea this was happening until I started poking around the Internet for early reviews and first impressions of the movie. Instead, I found several stories about its divisiveness, how people are upset about its depiction of violence, and Keanu Reeves fans being upset at Joker’s director (Todd Phillips) questioning why John Wick 3 is getting a pass despite a triple-digit kill count (all of which is odd since, as of this writing, Joker has not actually been released in theaters yet). Police departments, and even the U.S. military, have issued warnings for people to take extra caution when going to see the film.
Let’s acknowledge that all of these people make valid points; some moreso than others. I especially agree with Phillips. If you are going to complain about violent movies and pressure theaters not to show them (like people did with the theater in Aurora, Colorado), be consistent and demand all movies depicting murder and violence are not shown…or shut up. Just because the violence and murder in movies like John Wick 3 and Hobbs and Shaw is stylized nonsense, doesn’t make it any less likely that some lunatic won’t decide that movie is the motivation for a murder spree.
Let’s also acknowledge that people receive and interpret films in all sorts of different ways. One of the loudest complaints about Joker is that the film romanticizes a psychopath, that it asks the audience to sympathize with a killer. Joker isn’t the first film to ask this of an audience and it most certainly won’t be the last. Deadpool, Suicide Squad, John Wick – again, if you have no problem sympathizing with those characters and relishing scores of murders, you don’t get to be mad at Joker just because the movie is more realistic. It’s still a fictional movie taking place in a fictional city with fictional characters originating from comic books.
To be clear, Joker absolutely makes you sympathize with Arthur Fleck, a.k.a. Joker (Joaquin Phoenix). That is what good writing is supposed to do. Arthur is both the protagonist and antagonist of the film and the audience must sympathize with characters in order to be hooked into the film. However, it is also clear from the start that any sympathy you might have for Arthur should not be given to him.
(SPOILER ALERT – as always, we’re going to dive into some plot, as well as a couple of the things the movie did that I loved. And, as always with movies I find exceptionally good, I recommend you go see the movie, then come back and finish reading. That’s what I do.)
We first meet Arthur in a mental hospital, looking menacing and psychotic. This is your reminder about who Arthur is going to become, so it’ll be easy to recognize your sympathy for what it really is (we’ll come back to this later.) The film cuts to Arthur in front of mirror, painting his clown face on. Arthur’s actual job is clown-for-hire, whether that be making kids laugh in a hospital or twirling “SALE!!” signs around in front of store going out of business. The latter scenario is what we see first, including a bunch of teens stealing Arthur’s sign, then beating the shit out of him in an alley. Yeah, feel bad for Arthur. You’re human and so is he.
Next, we see Arthur in a therapy session, discussing working on his stand-up comedy routine while his therapist flips through Arthur’s notebook and reading nothing resembling comedy. We also learn Arthur is taking medication and that he has a mental condition where he goes into uncontrollable fits of laughter that do not match his actual emotion. As a final bit of initial development, Arthur lives with his mom, Penny (Frances Conroy), in a shitty apartment and has no real friends. Yeah, feel bad for Arthur. You’re human and so is he.
Then, things start to get really interesting. Arthur meets a young woman down the hall (Zazie Beetz) and they kind of hit it off. Penny is sending letters to Thomas Wayne (yes, that Thomas Wayne) in an effort to get Wayne to send them some money (she worked for Wayne Enterprises decades earlier) to help them out of squalor. Arthur accidentally drops a gun on the floor of the children’s ward of a hospital he is performing at and gets fired from his job. Arthur attempts his stand-up routine at an open-mic night. Arthur murders three assholes that attack him on the subway after what appears to be an aborted attempt at sexual assault of another passenger. Arthur’s therapist informs him that the city cut funding for social workers, so they won’t be able to meet any more, nor will he be able to continue getting prescriptions from her. Whew, that’s a lot to digest. Yes, he makes some really bad decisions, but life isn’t helping him out at all. It’s still okay to feel bad for him, but maybe hold some of it back.
The third act is where the movie really grabs onto you. Cops are looking into the subway murder and know the suspect was dressed as a clown. Arthur starts discovering and realizing truths about his life and reality. We learn more about Arthur’s condition and his past. The murders have inspired thousands of people to take to the streets in protest of the income disparity and squalid conditions many of those people have dealt with for years. Arthur’s lack of medication leads to even more bad decisions. Things are falling apart and you, the audience, realize that it was never sympathy that the film wanted from you. The movie just wanted your understanding. It didn’t want you to condone murder and violence. It just wanted you to acknowledge why murder and violence can sometimes happen. That is what the people complaining about this film are missing and why Joker is a far better movie than those other action flicks I mentioned.
Joker is a nearly perfect film. The pacing is amazing, never rushing itself and never getting bogged down. Joaquin Phoenix is also amazing, creating a new Joker that is entirely his while offering a couple of winks to Heath Ledger’s Joker with a couple of subtle homages. The film has zero comic book feel to it, resembling a biopic more than anything else. But, more than anything, there were two things that put this movie over the top for me.
(EXTRA SPOILER ALERT – in case you did not heed my warning.)
The first is a scene late in the movie where two of Arthur’s former coworkers show up at his apartment. Arthur murders one of them while telling the other guy he may leave. The other guy, Gary (Leigh Gill), who is a little person, attempts to leave, but cannot reach the chain on the door. Considering Gary is sobbing and terrified of Arthur, his inability to leave is equally genius writing and horrifying at the same time.
The second, and most important thing, is that you don’t know what is real by the end of the film. I won’t spoil any details of that, but, like Inception, the film leaves you wondering what parts were figments of Arthur’s imagination and what, if any, actually happened. It’s a brilliant bit of filmmaking that is revealed halfway through the film and emphasized again and again to make you question everything you are seeing. What’s more is that it puts you into Arthur’s shoes and head, making you experience the movie the way Arthur is experiencing life.
I did say nearly perfect because I (and everyone else I spoke with) had one small complaint. For reasons having nothing to do with story, we are forced to endure an obviously shoe-horned scene depicting the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents, all the way down to the pearl necklace. They just couldn’t help themselves and that is why the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) is a disaster (side note: Joker is not a part of that universe).
As of now, Joker is the best movie I have seen all year. What’s more is that I wasn’t expecting it. With all of the previous DC-related disappointments, I just wanted a solid movie that would make me forget the embarrassment that was Jared Leto’s Joker. Not only did Joaquin Phoenix and the filmmakers accomplish that, they made a film both amazingly good and frighteningly dark. It’s the kind of movie that should be embraced and recognized for what it is, not for what people are afraid it might be. I get it – you’re human. Just realize that is the point the movie is making – we’re all human. Understand?
Rating: Ask for negative thirty dollars back. A little crazy never hurts.