“Joker” Movie Review


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     In what may very well be one of the most unsettling, yet nuanced, character portrayals of all time, Joaquin Phoenix delivers a tour de force performance for the ages in director Todd Phillips’ “Joker”, a new take on the DC villain known throughout comics and film history as Batman’s arch nemesis.  But make no mistake, this is not the Cesar Romero version of the 1960s, nor could anyone possibly compare Phoenix’s creation to that of Jack Nicholson’s (1989’s “Batman”), Heath Ledger’s (2008’s “The Dark Knight”), Jared Leto’s (2016’s “Suicide Squad”), or even the Mark Hamill voiced incarnation in “Batman: The Animated Series.”  In reality, provided you’re a well versed cinephile, the most obvious comparison, and possibly Phoenix’s primary inspiration, is Travis Bickle, Robert DeNiro’s iconic character from Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece “Taxi Driver”.  Essentially, what Phillips and Phoenix have done is take a well known comic book character and remove him from the comic book world, inserting him into the fear driven society we live in today.  And he fits quite well.

     Taking place likely in the 1980s, based on various setting and design cues, Phillips and his co-writer, Scott Silver, tackle the material with a completely different tone than has ever been attempted before in what is billed as a comic book film.  The closest to this type of film is likely Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”, but even there key scenes tended to play to the heroic nature of Batman and his technology enhanced methods at fighting crime, leaving Ledger as an effective supporting player for which he won an Oscar.  “Joker” plays like a true psychological crime film where the character he eventually becomes is not what the story is about, but rather the painful journey that ultimately leads him there.  To compare “Joker" to anything we’ve seen from Marvel or DC to this point wouldn’t make sense.  The violent nature of the film’s key set pieces, and the mere fact Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck suffers from a multitude of mental illnesses immediately set it apart.

     A lot has already been made about the film’s storyline which people describe as a lonely white guy who turns to violence in order to make society pay for his own failures and inadequacies.  But that’s just your average Twitter version of a story that is incredibly complex whether you look at it from a purely fictional standpoint or make the difficult comparison with the realities we face today.  Yes, our society has a number of sick individuals and some have resorted to violence, but it’s often too easy to create a profile in our own minds as to who these people are.  We do that because it makes us feel better to know what subsection of our communities pose the biggest threat to our well being.  All the while; however, we ignore the facts.  And the fact is, Arthur Fleck endures countless demeaning and intentionally violent acts in the film that would have a profound effect on anyone being victimized in this way.  He’s also mentally ill and part of a system that is abandoning him.

     We’ve all heard the phrase “We are creating a monster.”.  Society’s burden to address mental health issues is crucial, yet there is a consistent track record of insurmountable failure that I’m quite certain Phillips is looking to exploit here.  “Joker”, in other words, is more of a cautionary tale about what happens when we ignore the problems we wish would simply go away.  Arthur is seen in the opening sequence working as a sign flipping clown for a storefront when he’s jumped by a gang of juvenile thugs who brutally beat him in a day lit Gotham City alley.  Ask anyone whose experienced something like that and they’ll tell you it stays with them forever.  Sure, the physical wounds will eventually heal, but the mental trauma is likely to last their entire lives.  And Arthur’s overworked case manager can’t possibly give him the treatment he really needs given the underfunded status of her employer, so the solution is more drugs and less one on one sessions with a therapist.  Let’s face it, there is no money in mental health.  If there was, movies like “Joker” would seem outlandish instead of hitting home to the point people were afraid of potential attacks at movie theaters during opening weekend.

     Phillips’s story sees Arthur living with his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), who is also in need of constant care, leaving much of the cooking, cleaning, and even bathing up to Arthur, meaning the time to actually look after himself is minimal.  He fancies one of his neighbors, Sophie (Zazie Beetz), but his life seems to be in a constant downward spiral where any thought of a meaningful relationship with someone else feels impossible.  His co-workers think he’s weird, particularly because he also suffers from a tick that brings forth uncontrollable laughter in situations where such behavior is inappropriate.  But he’s not without dreams, believing he one day will be a stand up comedian performing on the popular Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) Show.  But his bad luck gets worse when he is again jumped, this time on a subway train by a trio of mean spirited scumbag Wall Street types in suits.  When the situation escalates, we as the audience begin to see the horrific and ultimately tragic transformation into one of the most iconic villains of the last fifty years.

     Violence in movies is certainly nothing new, but for some reason, an outcry against “Joker” and the way it depicts certain violent situations began to appear in the media shortly after the film premiered in Venice.  Once you see the film, I doubt any argument can be made it’s any worse than say “Rambo: Last Blood” or “John Wick: Chapter 3”, both of which are loaded with realistic depiction of violence and gore but received absolutely no backlash whatsoever.  Perhaps it’s because we view John Rambo and John Wick as good guys?  Thus we don’t bat an eye when Rambo cuts someone’s heart out and shows it to them before they die?  The bad guy deserves it right?  Or maybe Arthur Fleck is too close to the one size fits all profile the media has incorrectly assigned to the mass shooters of the past ten years which is apparently an immediate red flag for those who believe Hollywood has all of the sudden crossed the line.  

     Baseless thoughts like these ignore the fact that the films of any era are a direct reflection of the issues society was or is facing.  And none of this should take away from the fact Todd Phillips has made a film that will endure.  Not just this year, but likely forever.  This is what the underbelly of the comic book genre looks like.  No, it’s not the buffed out ultra patriotic look of a Captain America, nor is it the shiny advanced tech of an Iron Man.  Instead, “Joker” is a direct reflection of us and where society is going if we don’t find a way to come together and heal.  Phillips has made a film that has literally turned the genre upside down and in the process has recreated an adversary likely to do quite a bit of damage before the inevitable showdown with the Caped Crusader in a future installment.  This is clearly one of the best films of 2019.  GRADE: A