Tom Jolliffe looks at the controversy surrounding Joker and an apparent drop in critic’s ratings in the aftermath…
So after a year of furious anticipation and excitement, Joker has finally been released upon the cinematic world. A month or so ago we were looking at what critics were describing as exceptional, a masterpiece, an Oscar contender. It was doing brilliantly at festivals, going so far as to win at Venice. There was the odd whispered aside at the back of the room that perhaps the film may have a problematic approach to showcasing (and glorifying) its violence.
Then with a timed surge with some vocal detractors (and in some cases for those directly involved in tragic situations I get the concerns). The trouble is some raised concerns without seeing the film, then the social media circus (and mainstream media to an extent) hopped on board and thrust an interrogative light up at Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix, the films director and leading man respectively.
A film that was largely a critical darling, hovering on a beefy certified fresh rating, flittering between the high 70’s and low 80’s on Rotten Tomatoes (okay…RT isn’t the be all and end all, but for arguments sake…). Post media uproar, Joker has seen its RT rating drop a whole 10%. That’s a significant drop and seems oddly timed in the wake of said media ‘furore.’ The film has now come out. It’s scored excellently with audiences. An IMDb rating that is almost ludicrously high, and largely stuffed with pre-release scoring (couldn’t people see it first then score..? Call me crazy!) is also typically hyperbolic. It’s certainly not the 10th best (its placing in the top 250 last I looked, but a placing in that top 250 seems permanently assured) film ever. Even maintaining a place as one of 250 of cinemas greats isn’t really warranted. The early critical response claiming it as a master work doesn’t really ring true.
For the sake of balance, I’ve seen this before with some films that get some buzz and get an early flurry of reviews (particularly from a good festival run). There may well be some studio interference on that front. Then around a week prior to release the rest follow, the rating plunges and there’s an equilibrium where the film sits about right. It may be that Joker has had the same. However, I do wonder in an age of public persona and the self-grandeur among some critics, whether a very definite and disapproving stance against a film deemed immoral has affected their ability to grade the film objectively. Now I can see why some critics didn’t like it and some of the legitimate reasons given. The film is longer than it needs to be and succumbs to repetition and a general lack of subtlety in some key moments (The kind of expert craft and magic a Scorsese could give to Taxi Driver say, Phillips can’t quite)…however whilst it may not be great, it’s hard to see how this is a 1 star, even 2 star film. Again, that drop…the timing. It smells like an outdoor Arizona fish market by closing time.
In terms of the criticism that this glamorises violence…well this is a contentious issue and the lone white male with mental health issues driven to reaction by a society he’s alienated from is old hat. Still, of hundreds of films, maybe a few of which get labelled as irresponsible, why is it Joker? If this glamorises violence then so does almost every gangster film, every vigilante film, every 80’s era action film. To label Joker as an assured inciter (before it’s even had the chance to come out) is in itself irresponsible. It’s a long drawn cinematic argument now, that violence in films may spark behavioural reactions in some…the trouble is, in people like that, anything might spark it. Let’s improve mental health services and stop cutting budgets, rather than worrying about films. Still…Fight Club may have initially caused a minimum of controversy, long forgotten now, but if Joker is considered as troublesome as a burst of social media seemed to suggest, then why not point the finger at Fight Club? The Godfather? Etc etc.
Some films just fling themselves out into pop culture at a given moment and unfairly take the brunt. For a counter, Rambo: Last Blood is a more violent film and more simplistically righteous in its black and white depiction of good/bad. Still, more than you could ever say about Joker, it ‘glamorises’ violent retribution, as well as casual xenophobia. Still, aside from some warranted savaging from critics, it has been and gone without much notice.
In the end, the film indeed has much to admire, not least some wonderful cinematography, a great score and a performance from Phoenix that is exceptional. Sometimes you see a very definite line of the week which seems to start a stampede of critics to follow. That of course may have benefited the films festival response, but at the same time, not for the first nor last time I suspect, there’s a kind of rebellious about turn in attitudes that perhaps starts with a handful before some others join in and follow in slipstream. Maybe it’s objective…maybe there was something more.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has several features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019/2020 and a number of shorts hitting festivals. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/