In recent years many people have bemoaned the fact that you can’t just consume a piece of media absent-mindedly. Controversy after controversy has prompted people to consider how they spend their time and money, and to do so in a considered fashion as a responsible consumer because of media’s effects on culture.
Joker is maybe the best / worst example of this. The very character of the Joker has, rather fittingly, become a meme unto itself, usually associated with outrage and exclusive gamer culture. On top of this there are fears that something in this movie could somehow incite violence in its audience. While the former was prompted by simple internet humour, the latter has been suggested by real mass shootings which have taken place.
So after seeing this movie and now sitting down to review it, both you the reader and I the writer need to navigate these issues. It doesn’t help that other reviewers who have seen this movie at film festivals have, for some reason, taken it unto themselves to pepper their hot takes with the worst kind of la-di-da English. You know the type, the kind of writing where it was very clear that the author wrote it with an online thesaurus in the next tab, or their favourite five dollar words from first year creative writing.
I’m just going to blow through these real quick because I just want to discuss a movie based on a clown character that was taken too seriously. That cool with you? Okay, as a meme this movie does its best to be the wrong kind of joke. It does take itself too seriously but it does so for the right reason. Everyone involved in this production had very obvious reverence for the character and the work of others who created it, but you can still bleed dumb humour from it if you try.
When it comes to violence, there is a lot of it. This movie is rather restrained when it comes to this, only showing graphic violence when it makes a difference to the story, and not just for the hell of it.
Unfortunately, when it comes to incitement of violence, we can see how this movie could coerce that. Saying exactly why would be a spoiler, but the trailers on this page give you a good indication that this movie sees some kind of social uprising that uses violence. I’m not a psychologist, but I really don’t see why this movie would be any more provocative than, say, Taxi Driver, which came out in 1976.
Oh boy. Okay. Let’s get into the actual movie now. Joker, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is basically a character study of its namesake. We see who this version of the Joker is before he has green hair, how and why he’s as crazy as he is, and what that is eventually used for.
This movie is an exceptional slow burn that doesn’t really feel like a ramp into insanity, but rather a fall off of a tree. Every branch the story beats hit on the way down are apparent as they happen, and each one packs a real punch.
You’re not going to see the Joker meticulously planning out elaborate death traps or filling a revolver with a small sign that says “BANG!” at the end of a stick, but you will see a comically disturbed man navigate around an equally crazy world until the two violently clash.
The writers did a good job in making this restrained story work, but Phoenix is the one who makes it shine. While this movie does have a surprisingly large cast, just about every scene features and focuses on the Joker.
Phoenix’s performance here is genuinely unsettling. Not because he’s all skin and bones – again we’ve seen this kind of things years ago like in The Machinist from 2004 – but because how uncomfortable this version of the Joker is. While watching, you’re not so much on edge because the Joker could whip out a weapon at any point and hurt, but because of how unpleasant he is to be around.
Phoenix’s speech patterns, appearances, small mannerisms… hell, even his one slightly off colour tooth is just plain ugly. We’re not insulting the actor here, we’re complimenting his obvious dedication to the role, as well the work of the makeup and costume designers.
People who cry out for these types of movies to receive Oscars now, I believe, have a proper horse in that race. It cannot be understated how good of a horrible job Phoenix has done here, and how the team around him compliment that performance.
Aside from makeup and costume, Gotham itself is a terrible place to be in. There’s actually a specific plot point about why it looks and feels so bad to inhabit (another spoiler) but every scene emanates a sense of general dread, even before Joker walks in.
While the characters and their story here are great, they’re very far from perfect. This movie really could have been cut down, as many scenes just go on for too long despite proving their point and contributing their piece after just a minute or two.
The music – while a vocal point here – is just overwhelming and unnecessary sometimes. I’m going to use my one “comparison to the Nolan movies” token here to point back to those films and think about how silence and the lack of music really elevated many of the scenes in that trilogy.
Joker himself is also just too much at sometimes. It sounds ridiculous but there are just unending scenes of him doing nothing but laughing. Yes, I know that’s a major part of his character, but just rein it in a bit. Please.
Other than that there’s a string of minor annoyances like bizarre plot turns and dialogue that really could have used rewrite. These smaller problems pile on until the credits roll and they actively take away from the movie overall.
Joker is a fantastic movie, despite all the guff it has to fight through before you actually sit down to watch it. If you have some cultural or philosophical problem with it, well, I’m not reviewing you, I’m reviewing this movie.