*DISCLAIMER: This review will be kept entirely spoiler-free.*
Joker is directed by Todd Phillips and stars Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beets, Robert De Niro, Marc Maron, Brett Cullen, and Brian Tyree Henry.
Based loosely on the DC Comics property of the same name, the film follows Arthur (Phoenix), a failed stand-up comedian and societal outcast. As Arthur is continually bullied, beaten, and isolated by a society he has tried so hard to embrace, he slowly begins a descent into madness and psychopathy, eventually becoming the famous clown prince of crime: The Joker.
I truthfully cannot remember the last time there was as much conversation around a film as there is around Joker. Fresh off a month-long festival circulation prior to its release, as well as a number of praises and accolades from every corner of the entertainment world, it seemed as though Phillips and Phoenix had truly crafted lightning in a bottle, and were ready to unleash it upon the world.
Adding this universal praise (including the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival) to an endless circulation of recent controversy surrounding the film’s chaotic and anarchic nature, it seemed like, for better or worse, an overload of cinematic discourse was on the horizon.
In other words, the pressure was on.
So, beyond every societal and cinematic implication this film carries into the theater from the word go, is Joker really a film–no, a masterwork–worthy of its praise and its controversy? Does the film even live up to the sheer amount of cinematic renown the character himself holds?
Well, even after combing through all the smoke, mirrors, and controversy, I’ve come to find that Joker is ultimately a hollow, repugnant, and nihilistic commentary on the nature of chaos, lunacy, and society, complete with none of the insight or awareness a film like this should possess. It isn’t wholly irredeemable, and it does make a few attempts to raise important questions and contains a truly Oscar-worthy bid from Phoenix. But, when you have a piece of art that’s trying to offer up as much as this one is, it flat out cannot be ignored when, in the end, said piece of art simply has nothing to say.
One of the culprits responsible for what I feel is Joker’s biggest problem would undoubtedly be the script. On the surface, this film is essentially a warped character study of a psychologically broken man and what happens when that man snaps and decides to fight against the society that has tyrannized him for so long. And in essence, that’s what a story about a character like this should set out to be. After all, many contemporary moviegoers have at least some idea of who The Joker is and how he got to be that way, be it through one iteration of the character or another.
But, through a number of painfully repetitive, predictable, or downright melodramatic story beats all in conjunction with one another, there was no point throughout this film that I was really made to feel as though I was witnessing the birth of The Joker. In fact, a generous 85% or so of this film is really dedicated to Arthur, and isn’t paced well enough to truly represent two sides of the same coin, just one side of the coin that suffers a lot of bruising and scarring. Arthur and The Joker never once felt like two different characters, which essentially negates the idea of a downfall right from the start.
In addition, I couldn’t help but be dreadfully bored throughout a lot of what this film had to offer narratively, as there are only so many times I can see Arthur do the same things over and over again before it starts to not only feel repetitive, but downright lazy. Without giving a single spoiler away, things do eventually pick up by the swing into the last third when Arthur fully assumes the titular persona. But, by then, I had such a lack of interest in the story and the warped character development it runs parallel to, that I truthfully wasn’t invested enough to let these events affect me in any way. (Plus, the last third of this film has a huge problem that I’ll address in my spoiler editorial next week.)
These narrative setbacks in combination with Phillips’s idle and indifferent direction ultimately point to the fact that, for all its bravado and all of its promises of chaotically thematic grandeur, Joker truly has nothing to say. It is a film that wants to raise hard questions about so many things, be them society, anarchy, or the class divide that may exist in modern America, to name a few. And in all fairness, some attempts are made to try and raise these questions that, if nothing else, certainly belong in a film like this in 2019. But, these questions are nothing without proper answers, like commentary without proper insight and understanding. So, in the end, how does Phillips finally face and answer these difficult questions?
Well, he doesn’t. Not in any way that counts.
The “commentary” provided by the narrative and thematic work this film does serves no more function than a set of keys meant to distract a crying toddler. Phillips answers questions of anarchy and chaos simply with more anarchy and chaos: pure destruction for the sake of destruction. This film is anarchic, violent, and rambunctiously grotesque, but carries no reason for being so. It just is the way that it is, with no thought as to why these events are unfolding or how one might justify such actions in an attempt to sympathize with the focus of this character study. It is the pinnacle of cinematic nihilism, and pays no attention to the intersectionality of its purpose, yet retains all the pretentious arrogance of thinking it has done so.
Essentially, this film, through both its script and its direction, obnoxiously thinks that it’s so much more profound than it really is–which is to say that it’s profound at all–making for one of the most maddeningly frustrating experiences I’ve had at the movies all year.
This film also attempts to pay (in)direct homage to a number of influential genres and iconic films throughout the history of American cinema, and truthfully also fails on that front. There’s a very distinguishable line between something like cinematic allusion or homage versus simply ripping something off, a sin most notably evident in two of the film’s “influences,” the Scorsese greats Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1983). The allusions to these films throughout Joker are often more overtly evident than needed and, at a point, seemed more like a copycat mockery than any kind of true or fitting homage.
Time for an olive branch. I will easily admit that Phillips’s remarks in the infamous Empire interview over the summer (which you can find right here) were blown wildly out of proportion by a majority of the press. However, I will also say that his attempts to imbue this film with tidbits of intertextuality faithful to the comics don’t fit at all within the kind of story he’s attempting to tell, from semantic inconsistencies all the way to blatant thematic ruptures both within this film and the lore it pulls from. I can’t go too in depth on this issue without giving away major spoilers, so put a pin in this for next week.
As I mentioned briefly before, this film is paced horribly. Not only does the pacing conflict directly with the focal imbalance of the film’s character study, but is also mercilessly slow, to the point of making a two-hour film feel as though it’s twice that length. And furthermore, this film “ends” so many times within the last five minutes that I found myself begging for it to just get to the point and wrap things up. When you keep still on a powerful closing image while the score swells and builds to a climax, you immediately expect a cut to black. When it happens again, you expect the result not found last time. When it continues to happen about three more times? The end result is something that I feel a lot of this movie is guilty of being: ridiculously frustrating.
In what I feel is truly the best thing this film has going for it, Joaquin Phoenix is a masterful tour de force, ruthlessly commanding the presence of every moment he is on screen and continuing to prove that he is truly one of the finest actors of this generation. While his incarnation of the famed character admittedly isn’t my favorite, it’s unequivocally and uncompromisingly his, tapping into the most twisted and deformed reaches of the physical and mental human condition as he descends further and further into complete madness. The only reason I’m not giving the performance higher remarks than this is because it unfortunately suffers under the wildly confusing and improper material he’s given to work with. As I’ve said many times, an actor has to put a lot of faith in their directors and script, both of which fail Phoenix on a number of fronts, which is nothing short of a damn shame in every sense of the word. Regardless, Phoenix continues to amaze throughout, and has more than earned his rightful place in this year’s best actor conversation.
Something that also simply cannot be dismissed out of hand is Lawrence Sher’s breathtakingly paralyzing work as the film’s cinematographer. I’ve patiently waited to see what Sher would bring to this project ever since his earth-shatteringly phenomenal work in Godzilla: King of the Monsters earlier this year, and he absolutely delivers on every front. The way that Sher constantly builds one frame of sickeningly beautiful shot composition after another is unmatched by many working in Hollywood today, and truly breathes prominent and tangible life, color, and and atmosphere into the striking creation of a retro, 1950s Gotham City. Seeing this film in IMAX was a visual experience unlike many others I’ve had this year, and is absolutely due to Sher’s marvelous vision behind the camera.
Unfortunately, top-tier cinematography and a sickeningly warped and Herculean effort from Phoenix aren’t enough for this film’s empty, cynical, and arrogantly pretentious narrative and thematic ambitions to stand on. It’s a quasi-decent character study that, at many times, misses the mark of what it means to be so, and doesn’t have any idea how to accomplish anything beyond that. But, above all else, it’s an anarchic, directionless, and vastly problematic social commentary without any of the commentary, which I’m very sad to say has made for one of the worst films I’ve seen this year. I’m going to give Joker a D-.
This review and its content were edited by Kayla Randolph, Chief Editor at Reel Thoughts.