(If you’re curious, my review process. It’s also pasted at the end of this post. I don’t believe in Rotten Tomatoes. I just believe in me.)
(***all-purpose SPOILER ALERT*** there may be some in this review)
directing 8* (Though some of his directing choices are ethically unjustifiable)
writing 9* (see note on directing score)
SW SCORE: 45
4.5 out of 5 🐙
Holy chaotic films, Batman. I did my best to avoid any reviews for this film before I saw it tonight. I didn’t know the Rotten Tomatoes percentage. I didn’t know the Metacritic score. My twitter feed, as it’s full of movie-obsessed user accounts, was discussing this movie for 2months and when the sneak previews started for critics, reviews were being posted with relentless frequency. But I managed to read none of them. But I did catch some of Todd Phillips’ assinine comments on comedy and his ridiculous false equivalency when comparing the violence in Joker to the violence in the John Wick trilogy. He sounds like another entitled straight male director whose bitching because he can’t use ethnic slurs to power his comedy. It’s stupid and wrong because he has made many comedies that did not rely on that material. I don’t know why he forgot that. Anyway, I could go off on his dumb ass in an entirely independent post but, suffice it to say, I went into this movie hoping it would suck because he’s an asshole.
SPOILER ALERT – I REALIZE I’VE ALREADY GIVEN ONE BUT I’M REMINDING YOU NOW
As I was entering the theater I noticed something I have not seen at a movie in my entire life: two policemen standing by the door. Sure, some large theaters have a cop who sits there all the time but this theater was in the middle of a well to do neighborhood with cafes and boutiques and organic restaurants. It just shows how fucked up we have become as a society that police presence is a choice that is made and few people probably think it is a bad idea.
The movie starts with Arthur Fleck (the man who will become the Joker) being mugged and severely beaten by asshole teenagers. We see he stays with his mother well into adulthood and we know he is seeing some sort of mental health social on a weekly basis and taking “seven medications” which are, in his opinion, completely ineffective. This is not a stable person.
A combination of naïveté, false friends, and dumb luck get him fired from his job as a clown. But as he’s being summarily dismissed, he learns the depths of his false friend’s betrayal. On the heels of his termination, the city has cut the budget and he will no longer be getting mental health counseling or his medications.
This is the first snap.
He has lost his job and been betrayed by someone he felt was a friend. And let’s not forget he is off his meds now, too. The stew is brewing.
He is attacked again and, in what could be argued as self-defense, shoots two of the attackers dead. But all pretense of defense is gone when he chases down the third attacker and empties his gun killing him.
He has now crossed the threshold from anger and resentment and mental health into clear violent psychosis. He has tasted bloody chaos and he likes it and wants more.
After this heinous act, he is imbued with confidence and gets the girl, Sophie (his neighbor, played earnestly by Zazie Beetz), he has been admiring.
The triple murder by a man wearing a clown mask lights the match in a city that is already festering with weeks of uncollected garbage, unemployment, and general resentment and anger. Legions of clown-masked admirers begin to protest and rally and even attack police. This is where Todd Phillips makes an unforgivable choice. In the first clown crowd rally, there are two quick shots of a protestor sign that reads simply “Resist”. There is NO way Todd Phillips and his producers and editors and executives at the studio can claim “Resist” is just a generic protest word. It’s not. Since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, it is clearly associated with the anti-conservative, progressive, left of the spectrum movement. To in any way associate that segment of the population with a mob of violent people who are celebrating a triple murder is abhorrent. It is amoral. It is ridiculous. There is absolutely no defense for it. It is not good satire. It is one of the most stupidly evil creative choices I have ever seen.
Arthur feels seen for the first time after the triple murder. This is clearly a psychopath and I would not say the movie is applauding him at this point.
The tipping point that pushes Arthur into dark oblivion is finding a letter from his mother to Thomas Wayne claiming that Arthur is Thomas’ illegitimate son and that they need his help.
Arthur goes to see Wayne at his home. Alfred violently fights him off after a creepy interaction with a very young Bruce Wayne, stating that Arthur’s mother was insane. He seeks out Thomas Wayne in a rally and Wayne assaults him and tells him that his mother was in an asylum and he was adopted. Arthur rushes to Arkham State Hospital to get the file and discovers that his mother did adopt him and was severely mentally ill and did brutally neglect him.
This is the shattering point. He is lost now.
He walks home in a daze and enters Sophie’s apartment and we learn that his courtship with Sophie was entirely in his head. I don’t see the reason for this ‘A Beautiful Mind’ choice. But it’s presented as the last straw.
He commits two more heinous murders. And this is another really questionable choice by Phillips. Up until this point and afterwards, the score had been somber and moody and frightening and tortured and quite evocative but it was entirely original music. Phillips pauses this style and inserts steps a popular triumphant anthem song as if the Joker has finally, happily come into his own. He finds the killings funny. He has completely transformed into the purely evil comic villain that has been Batman’s foil for decades. Maybe Phillips is using the anthem rock as satire. But I don’t think it’s played for that effect. We are clearly supposed to be rooting for Joker at this point. Or the score could just be a reflection of Arthur’s transformation. But it has the effect of likening Arthur to a fighter who is victoriously and confidently striding into the world.
This is not unprecedented. In A Clockwork Orange, Alex, a serial rapist and murderer, is supposed the hero of the film. Kubrick intentionally wants the audience to like him. Despite his horrific acts, we like him because his evil society is much worse than him. In the Sopranos, the mob boss Tony Soprano is a fan favorite, despite being a womanizer and a killer and a oft times brute, because he is less of a monster than all his henchmen. The show’s creator, David Chase, many seasons into the show, suddenly went on record that viewers were not supposed to root for Tony. Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, had to publicly state that Walter White, who does many horrific evil acts, is also not supposed to be admired. But both Chase and Gilligan made directorial and writing choices that clearly encouraged the audience to root for these monsters. The final example I’ll list here is from Silence of the Lambs. People rooted for Hannibal Lecter, a cannibal serial killer.
And sadly, a few people in the audience in my showing were clapping after this moment. Luckily the rest of the audience did not join them and they stopped seeing that their admiration of amorality was not shared by most of the people.
As he is taken into custody by the police after a very public murder, he is rescued by the legion of clown rioters and hailed as a hero. I’ve spoiled enough already and I’m sorry for doing so but I felt I needed to provide all these plot details to explain my position on the film. The final scene, unfortunately, is a grisly call out to A Clockwork Orange’s final scene. It is a monstrous act enshrouded in fun, happy music, and triumphant air. If this is satire, it is poorly done and I can see why some critics have lambasted the film for doing so.
I have a ranking of comic book movies that I add to pretty frequently. And I think I will add Joker to that ranking. Why the hesitation? Well, I almost feel like I’m adding The Birth of a Nation to my ranking of movies. It’s not that The Birth of a Nation is not a significant movie. But it’s a movie that avows racism and the Ku Klux Klan. True, in The Birth of a Nation, there is no satire. The racists are very much the heroes. But in Joker there are moments where the line goes from observation to adulation and that is really troubling at best.
As you step back and consider the forest, you could say that the entire aesthetic and many of the themes are lifted en masse from Taxi Driver. And I would not fight you. But if the stunning look was stolen, it was a tremendously successful theft. The movie does look great. And alienation and toxic masculinity and psychosis are not the exclusive property of the 1970s Scorsese opus. In fact, it could be easily argued that all three of those terrible phenomenons are getting worse every year and are very strong today.
Another minor derivation is Arthur Clarke’s standup comedy. It immediately made me think of Andy Kaufman’s awkward, uncomfortable comedy that is not supposed to clearly be a joke. Of course, this is his comedy style in the hands of a psychopathic, evil killer.
Another big complaint I’ve heard is the faux social commentary in the film. I would have to agree that it gives short shrift to serious issues that are plaguing society. But frankly I didn’t expect to see a reasoned exploration of socioeconomic and mental health issues in a movie about a psychopathic killer clown. Especially the moments when said psychopath is the one doing the exploring.
All those criticisms aside, I have to say that I’ve rarely seen a movie that left me thinking so much about the various ways one could interpret key moments in it. I am not a fan of noir or tragedy but this movie does both to a level I have not felt before. It’s an exceptional film. Todd Phillips is still a stupid asshole but this movie is a must-see. You can loathe it afterward and call me an asshole too if you want.
I was riveted. And I needed to see it again as soon as I left the theater. I can count on my hand the number of times I’ve felt that after a movie.
Many others have already remarked on this but I would be remiss if I did not throw my support in as well. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is one for the ages. While I loved Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker, Phoenix’s turn is so far above and beyond Ledger’s that there is no comparison to be made. To be fair, Ledger was only a supporting character in his turn while Phoenix had the spotlight for two hours.
Finally, as I was sitting there trying to figure out what I just saw, I noticed the credits ended very quickly. I’m so used to seeing movies with tons of CGI that credits last 3 or 4 times as long. But this movie had barely any special effects. It is Phillips’s final love note to a bygone era of film.
Review process: (this is always evolving, I’m sad to say. I’m more of a watcher who makes mostly unhelpful observations about things I have absorbed. I am not unlike a pop culture blob.)
Two scores are assigned: (I don’t believe in Rotten Tomatoes. I just believe in me)
(1) Shark Wrighter (SW) Score: Based on a sum of 5 sub-scores (acting, directing, writing/story, effects: cinematography &/or animation &/or effects, editing) with 1 being terrible and 10 being terrific.
(2) Octopuses (0-5 🐙, with 5 being fantastic and 0 being feces)
(3) Octopuses are my unquantifiable feeling…not that SW score is scientific…but this one is even less so
(4) ++ This optional section includes any incredibly *brilliant observations that don’t fit into simple quantitative slices like the scores and octopuses *(they are likely NOT brilliant).