REVIEW: “Joker” (2019)

The concept of the new “Joker” movie should have been enough to excite me from the start. A dark, psychological, and unflinching dig into the mentally fractured life of the most iconic DC Comics villain? Right up my alley. And then you top it off by casting the insanely intense and always committed Joaquin Phoenix. All the ingredients are there yet since the very first trailer I found myself more cautious than enthusiastic.

Three concerns kept my expectations in check. 1) The film is from Todd Phillips whose movies I generally struggle with and who has never done anything quite like this. Could he pull it off? 2) Phillips came out early saying “people are gonna be mad“. Did that mean he was straying completely away from the source material and simply milking the Joker name for attention and publicity? 3) Lastly, much of what makes Joker so unsettling comes from the mysteries of who he is and where he comes from. Would lifting that veil strip the character of his signature menace?

The quick answers to those questions: Yes, No, and No. More pointedly, what Phillips has made is pretty spectacular – a relentlessly grim character study of a madman on the edge and a stinging rebuke of the morally bankrupt society that pushes him over it. Furthermore, no one can say “Joker” is politically agnostic, but its societal critique is far from one-sided and the film features more narrative and critical depth than I ever expected. Oh, and it’s also one cracking setup for one of pop culture’s most sinister villains.

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“Joker” is a comic book movie similar to “Logan” in that it was let off the studio leash and allowed to make its own rules. It isn’t bound by any genre convention or expectation and it has no direct tie to any previous DC movie. This gave Phillips and company a ton of freedom and obviously they ran with it. Most surprising to me (a long-time fan of the Clown Prince) is how Phillips impressively balances having an original vision with capturing the essence of such an established character.

The movie’s bleakness begins with its introduction to Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) who lives with his sickly mother (Frances Conroy) on the impoverished outskirts of Gotham City. Arthur is an ambitious but unstable man who works for a rag-tag clown-for-hire agency but dreams of one day being a stand-up comedian. From the very beginning we know the deck is stacked against him and that’s a big part of Phillips’ message.

You could say Arthur represents society’s fringe, the dismissed and disenfranchised. They are vividly contrasted with the powerful upper-class elites embodied in billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). The concept of the ‘haves’ vs. ‘have-nots’ is a central premise and it’s often quite potent. Other times it can be glaringly on-the-nose. But it does feed the idea that Gotham is a powder keg where crime and poverty grows in one community while the other seems oblivious to it.

But it’s not as though Arthur finds compassion among the hardened lower-class. Even there he is considered an outcast. The lone exception is a sweet single mom (Zazie Beetz) who lives in the apartment down the hall. But even she can’t keep Arthur from cracking. Soon his fragile optimism gives way to angst and bitterness revealing something much darker curdling within him. In a way he begins to mirror Gotham City – a ticking time-bomb inevitably bound to explode. This leads the story deeper into the depths of human depravity as Arthur inadvertently triggers an equally vile side of humanity masquerading as an uprising.

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All of those story beats are important but the real genius of “Joker” is in how it puts us in Arthur’s head. The entire story is told from his point of view. It’s a critical use of perspective that drives the movie and infuses it with some unexpected psychological layers. Arthur is our narrator, our guide through a madman’s mind as his derangement festers. But how reliable is he and how much of what we see can we believe? This fact vs. fiction dynamic is key.

There lies the wickedly effective trick Phillips and his co-screenwriter Scott Silver pull off smashingly. And it’s one that has provoked a bevy of different interpretations. Take the controversies that have sprung up since the film’s enthusiastic debut at the Venice Film Festival. Accusations that it incites and/or condones violence comes from very strict and literal readings of a few provocative scenes. But nothing about the story or its structure encourages a strict, literal reading.

I don’t want to completely dismiss the criticisms simply because I can’t speak to how it may effect someone in a troubled head-space. And while the film doesn’t aim to be a comprehensive examination of mental illness, some could find it’s tough-minded and unwavering portrayal of its subject matter to be problematic. Despite that, neither the movie’s message nor its intent is the promotion or acceptance of violence. In fact, its convictions are far more judgmental and damning.

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Perhaps most important is how the script allows plenty of room for Joaquin Phoenix to let loose. His performance is raw, intense and hypnotic. You simply can’t take your eyes off of him. Whether it’s his jarring physical transformation (rumor has it he lost over 50 lbs for the role) or the chilling gaze of his cold, empty eyes. Phoenix brings an astonishing amount of ‘new’ to a character that’s been done many times before. I can’t see a scenario where he doesn’t get his fourth Oscar nomination.

Other standout reasons for the film’s success: Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir creates what is easily one of my favorite scores of the year. Her music is haunting and unsettling yet never intrusive. And so often it’s pivotal in developing and managing the film’s edgy tone. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher shoots both Arthur and Gotham with the same gritty, arresting visual aesthetic and several of his images are still etched in my mind. And I haven’t even mentioned Robert De Niro. He plays Gotham City’s Johnny Carson, a late night talk show host named Murray Franklin. Think Rupert Pupkin if he had made it big. He is who Arthur dreams of one day becoming.

As “Joker” slow-walks us towards its eventual maelstrom of iniquity it never spells out how we should feel about its titular character. It burrows under our skin and plays with our perceptions, but ultimately it’s up to us to sort it all out and reach our own conclusions. Considering the controversies maybe that has backfired a bit. But a more thoughtful evaluation reveals an audacious film that isn’t cavalier towards its violence nor numb to its effects. I saw it as a terrifying warning and an indictment of a society that not only creates monsters but often lifts them up. Then again, maybe that’s all in my head.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5-starss

77 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Joker” (2019)

  1. I’m going to see this maybe this coming weekend as I wanted to stay home for a bit. I am intrigued about this though I admit that Todd Phillips is hit/miss while I’m wondering why this film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival among so many others?

    • I’m with you on Phillips. In fact I’m probably a bit more critical than you of his past films. But as you can tell I’m really high on “Joker”. If you get a chance definitely see it on the big screen.

  2. I was amazed at this film. I thought a lot about The Joker in Batman the Dark Knight and drew comparisons from how both actors had great performances. This movie was really good and even though there was no hero in it.

    • I agree. I knew I liked it but the more I thought about it the more I loved it. It’s certainly a provocative movie but not in a way that deserves to be branded ‘controversial’. Seeing it again this week.

  3. Haven’t seen it, kinda monitoring the critical response to it without quite reading the reviews, as much as that’s possible. Initially was going to skip it, but your review (I only looked at the rating you gave it, don’t want to know too much) and a few other reactions are pushing me towards seeing it now. I’ll just say some of the other responses to it are kind of curious.

    • Oh I think you definitely should give it a go. It such a surprisingly clever movie that’s also very well made. It’s relentlessly grim but it makes sense to be. And Phoenix – wow! It’s 100% worth your time.

    • Yep, newspapers seem all over the map. They started strong but this controversy popped up and many of them have (unfortunately) leaned heavily into it. It’s a shame.

  4. Great review. I do believe that the Joker is a better character with a veil of mystery, but will give the movie a chance after reading this. It’s been getting a lot of flak, with some people enjoying it for the wrong reasons. I think you found the right ones! 🙂

  5. Excellent review, Keith! I appreciate your points about the political dimension (something I wrestled with) and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score. I adored how the score emphasised Arthur’s emptiness and sense of isolation from society.

    • Thanks. It’s politics are interesting. To me Phillips doesn’t let anyone off the hook and I really appreciated that. I love that this movie is doing so well. I just hate that the controversies have clouded so many media opinions. There is far more to this movie than many people are giving it credit for.

      • Those are some great points. I look forward to further considering the political aspects when I see the film for a second time. I’m glad that the movie is doing well too. I hope Hollywood can take the right lessons from the success of the movie.

      • 100% agree. I’m probably (fingers crossed) going to watch it again tonight. I’m anxious to see if it verifies any of the many theories I now have in my head.

      • I’m also eager to see if a second viewing confirms my central theory. (Spoilers) In those closing moments, when Joker thinks of Bruce Wayne alone in that ally, the whole film could be read as Joker imagining a situation in which he is indirectly responsible for creating Batman (hence why he says to his therapist that his joke is not funny). The joke is only funny to him because he knows who that little boy grows up to be.

        This flips the tradition of the Caped Crusader being responsible for creating the villains he puts away. At that moment, Joker finds that one tragedy of Bruce Wayne seeing his parents die as an amusing silver lining in his embellished early life. There’s also a small throwaway moment when Thomas Wayne refers to people in masks as cowards, a possible funny little joke on Joker’s part to say- hey Batsy, your Daddy would not like who you grew up to be.

      • That’s interesting. I will say that my second viewing did make several other things come to mind. (SPOILERS) It gave more credibility to the idea that the entire movie may be Arthur’s warped recollection of the events. In his telling of them he sees himself as the hero and despite being apolitical (as he told Murray) he believes he is the one who inspired the uprising and he is proud of it.

        But I believe it’s Thomas Wayne who first makes the comment referring to the disenfranchised as “clowns”. So the reality is Wayne is the one who inspired the clown motif, not Arthur. That would give more credibility to the idea that this is Arthur’s version of the story and is far from a credible narrator. Does any of that make sense? LOL.

        But then again, I have other theories that go a different route. HA!

      • That does indeed make sense! I’m glad you got more out of it a second time. I think the film is so fractured in its point of view that the reveal (SPOILERS) of Thomas Wayne not being Arthur’s father could be false.

        If we take this as truth, then the end scene with Joker thinking of Bruce Wayne is even more twisted as he finds the idea of his stepbrother in pain, funny. It goes beyond the Batman reading.

        In fact, I would not be surprised if one of his supporters told him that Thomas and Martha Wayne got gunned down and he thinks of that moment as an irony that they’re both the same now.

      • I’ve just gotten back from it. It’s incredible in IMAX, particuarly for spotting small details and emphasing Arthur’s meaningless within the Gotham at large. I will be writing another post on the film because there’s so much more to discuss.

  6. Nice review Keith. Unfortunately I had a very different reaction to Joker. As opposed to Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy, Joker really does seem to romanticize its protagonist. While Scorsese portrays both Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin as lonely, almost pathetic egomaniacs whose narcissism leads them to violence and sadism, Todd Phillips seems to really believe in Arthur Fleck’s manifesto, that he’s a man out for vengeance against all of those who wronged him (and unlike TB or RP, all of Arthur’s victims are portrayed to have deserved their fate).

    • That’s interesting. We definitely read it differently. (SPOILERS) For me, it didn’t romanticize him at all. In fact, I found the ending to be terrifying. I think Phillips has something strong to say about those who would lift up such a person as their hero. But I also think that scene is all in Arthur’s head so….And I wouldn’t say all of his victims deserved it. Personally I think he killed his neighbor and her daughter. Also all indications are that he killed the nurse in Arkham. And then you have to ask did the others really deserve to murdered? And if we say ‘yes’, what does that say about us? I found those things fascinating.

      • I do think that Todd Phillips believes Arthur’s victims deserved it (the Wall Street victims for bullying him, Randall for causing him to lose his job, and De Niro’s talk show host for mocking him on air). In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle never had this sort of first person interaction or familiarity with his victims (preventing us from emphasizing with his killings), while Jerry Langford in The King of Comedy is not a toxic, mean-spirited comic like Murray is, making him a more relatable figure.

        Good point about the neighbor and daughter. However, I do think that if Todd Phillips did show their (presumed) deaths onscreen, audiences would turn on the Arthur Fleck character. Because there’s no definite answer of whether the neighbors, Phillips never really challenges viewers to consider Arthur to be completely unheroic. Plus Arthur’s decision to leave Gary alive but not Randall demonstrates that Arthur only kills those who wronged him.

        As for the the nurse, I think she’s another bully for Arthur to take down. I believe at the end Todd Phillips uses her as a personification for the bureaucracy preventing Arthur’s individuality (that Phillips has cited One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next as an inspiration only further illustrates this point, though I’d probably need to rewatch both that film and Joker again to make a more direct comparison).

      • But again, just because Arthur (a most unreliable guide/narrator) sees the nurse as representing bureaucracy doesn’t make it so and it doesn’t make her worthy of being killed. Same with Randall. He didn’t cause Arthur to lose his job. Carrying the pistol to a children’s hospital (regardless of who gave it to him) was the cause.

        Again I think Phillips poses an interesting question: even if they did do these things to Arthur does that justify brutally murdering them? And perhaps our answers to those questions says more about us than it does Arthur.

        As for the Langford/Murray comparison, I actually liked it. Murray is certainly more mean-spirited but he also a reflection of Gotham City (and even us to a degree). Things are definitely more toxic now which makes his representation effective to me.

        I don’t know, it’s such an interesting conversation to have. I’m scheduled to see it again tonight and I’m anxious to see where I land on these issues afterwards.

      • That’s a fair point about the nurse, though I do recall Randall lying about where Arthur getting the gun to save his own skin, which does play a role in him getting fired.

        The thing is though I’m not sure if Todd Phillips is really making a movie that critiques violence in a realistic or serious manner. A lot of his pictures strike me as juvenile and mean-spirited, and he does not strike me as a filmmaker interested in challenging the role commercial cinema plays in aestheticizing violence. That being said, I’d be interested in seeing this movie again to see if I would change my mind.

        Also, I’d like to add that given the discourse concerning the film online, it’s good to see two people talking about a movie they disagree on without name-calling and petty bickering 😉

      • 100% agree. I LOVE talking about movies and how messages resonates with different people. And I especially love the thoughts from respected voices like yours. And to be perfectly honest, I LOVE challenging my reading of a movie. And the best way to do that is to listen to people with other points of view.

        BTW I do agree with you on Phillips’ past films. I think this may be his first film that I actually like (no exaggeration).

  7. I loved it. How someone can make this and Hangover 3 is one of the funny things about life. The way it builds and builds. So many great quotes. And the music! I said this to you with Ad Astra but I have to say it again. Music was incredible. But Joaquin. He has to win!!!!!!!!!

  8. Incredible review! Very well-written. I have been hearing about this film nonstop and wasn’t very interested in seeing it. After reading this though and hearing about Phoenix’s Oscar-worthy performance I might check it out. Joker has never been one of my faves but I definitely understand now why the character has been able to live on for so long.

    • Thank you! I’m REALLY high on this movie especially after a second viewing. But it’s not an easy movie to watch. As I wrote it is relentlessly grim and since it’s a Joker origin story of sorts you know it isn’t going to end well. But it has so many cool layers to it and its commentary really gets you thinking. Toss in that incredible Phoenix performance, one of the year’s best scores, and lights out cinematography…whew….

  9. Ace review Keith, I liked “Joker” quite a bit – in terms of filmmaking and performance (this really would not have worked at all without Joaquin Phoenix) it’s quite remarkable.

    But…I don’t see myself wanting to see this over and over again, it was a bit of a hard watch at times, and in all honestly I prefer the Joker in the context of a Batman film (if that makes sense?). I get this was never meant to be such a film but it doesn’t grab me in the same way that The Dark Knight does…but, again, I get that Joker is a totally different thing.

    • I do understand what your saying. I think I brought the Batman connections subconsciously. The idea that it was still an origin story of Batman’s chief villain was in the back of my mind. But you’re right, it’s definitely not your normal Joker inside Batman’s world.

  10. Pingback: Reading “Joker” and its Audacious Ending | Keith & the Movies

  11. Fantastic write-up on this movie, Keith. I too believe that this movie was more of a societal warning of what it can create if they don’t care for those who need the help they seek. I’m glad such a movie was released and hope it won’t keep directors and companies from producing such beautiful movies!

    • Thank you. There is so much depth to this movie and it really surprises me when I see reviews calling it “empty” and as “having nothing to say”. I see it so differently.

  12. i FINALLY got some time aside to read this mate, and plan to read your other post regarding the ending later today.

    You’ve made some super points here – as per usual! – that I kinda missed in retrospect. I must see this again.”It’s a critical use of perspective” is something I think I said but in way too many words whereas you used a few words, HA! I agree some of the commentary is bit… unsubtle, but I never find that a problem if it doesn’t feel preachy, which this doesn’t. The amount of commentary it does contain is surprisingly dense

    As for all the notions about emotionally stable people somehow seeing this film and deciding ‘I want to be just like him!’, I can’t help but find them incredibly illogical. Is what I mentioned the problem these far-lefties have? If not, what?! I honest don’t understand what in this movie could create copycat behaviour, no more than maybe a third of recent films. It all strikes me as rather silly.

    I’m with you on the soundtrack. What is it about those Icelandics eh? First Johhansson (RIP) now this artist, I must find some other work by her/him (I never checked the gender haha, not like it matters).

    One cracking set up for my favourite (and really the only comic book character I have ever liked due to the Batman games) I agree, sir!

    I totally forgot to realise the similarities to Logan! You are spot on (again! :P) and its no surprise these are the only two films I’ve liked out of all this superhero/villain malarkey.

    God I could write so much more but you raid all of my ramblings, though it was long and I wouldn’t blame you for skipping sections. I need to take a leaf out of your book and try to say what I want without writing nearly 1,900 bloody words!

    One thing though…. I’m not sure if it was a fantasy or some sort of flashback, but I recall him meeting Bruce Wayne as a child. Which would make him some 30+ years older than the boy who became Batman? Am I missing something here??

    Anyways, top-notch review as I have really come to appreciate recently. I must remember to keep up with your site more often than I do, I’m always missing quality stuff.
    BTW I loved ‘Hostiles’ having finally seen it. Do you know anything more about the release of this ‘Antlers’ film??

    Essay over, time to read Fast Color, after a stupidly long delay!!!

    • Thanks so much for the comments. Once again, this movie gives you sooooo much to talk about.

      I don’t think I did a good job on that paragraph about it’s effect on emotionally unstable people. I think some MAY be able to take it that way but I have a hard time putting any blame on the movie. The film is in no way promoting, advocating, and forgiving violence. Accusations saying it does are misguided. And the exact same paper-thin allegations could be made towards MANY other movies.

      Glad you had a chance to see “Hostiles”. It’s such an underappreciated movie. Sadly, no news on Antlers yet. I still have my eyes open for it.

      Anxious to read your “Fast Color” thoughts!

      • Haha, once again you summed up my exact thoughts in a tenth of the words I used 😛 Damn I need to be more efficient with my writing.

        But yeah we obviously are on the exact same page regarding this, especially that similar accusations could be thrown at other flicks. Like many other things in life, its the person, not the movie. Its all rather absurd really.

        I look forward to seeing this again and taking in the ending and actually giving it some proper thought, like you obviously did!

        Hostiles gave me much to chew on, I look forward to another watch.

      • I plan to tonight mate, I might actually post a ‘second thoughts’ kinda post and have quotes from my original post and then what I thought about those initial reactions. I did this once for Logan, it was really fun and interesting to see what had changed in my head. I like the concept, I might do it more often

      • i keep bloody running out of time!!! Fuckin daylight savings man, it fucks with my head!!!!

        Hopefully tomorrow, I’m gonna set alarms.

        Also I’m posting my thoughts on Ad Astra in the next few hours if ur interested. I don’t think I LOVED it as much as you but I certainly liked it a LOT.

        And hopefully cos I’m not tired I’ll have time for rewatches of Fast Color and Hostiles =]

        take it easy my man!

    • YES! This and “Ad Adstra” are my only 5 star reviews. I was blown away by this and still can’t get it out of my head. And that’s after seeing it three times! LOVE hearing your enthusiasm too.

  13. Pingback: Joker: Movie Review

  14. Pingback: JOKER [2019] – ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS AND INTERPRETATIONS (PT.1) | 500 CRAPPY WORDS A DAY

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