Directed by Todd Phillips.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro, Brett Cullen, Frances Conroy, Douglas Hodge, Shea Whigham, Marc Maron, Bryan Callen, Bill Camp, Josh Pais, Glenn Fleshler, Dante Pereira-Olson, and Brian Tyree Henry.
A gritty character study of Arthur Fleck, a man disregarded by society.
Here’s a killing joke: director Todd Phillips doesn’t understand why his own origin story/character study of Joker is a masterpiece. Typically a filmmaker of lowbrow comedies (The Hangover trilogy), Phillips has steered a hard right into not just comic book films, but fearlessly tearing apart comic book lore to present a fictional 1980s society (Gotham City, as usual, standing in for a New York borough) that forces anyone that lays eyes on it to opine on the ugliest aspects of modern times. If Marvel films are escapism, DC’s Joker is aversion therapy. If mainstream cinema itself has lost its backbone and embraced unrealistic outlooks on the world, happy endings, and optimistic throughlines designed to serve as a counterpoint to the nihilism emanating from the world around us, Joker is a scintillating reinforcement that psychopaths are real, and although we could absolutely limit the damage done by them if our leaders would ever come together as a country, they will always be there whether our mental health system and politicians fail them or not.
Meanwhile, Todd Phillips is throwing a temper tantrum regarding some citizens rightfully having trepidation about going anywhere near a theater this weekend (having seen the movie, I guarantee you I will be on my ass at home) due to a combination of the violence depicted in the film and real-world tragic events carried out during midnight showings of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. He compares the violence to John Wick, which is relentlessly brutal, yes, but cartoonish and is nowhere near grounded in reality. Recently, he claims to have abandoned comedy citing “woke culture” as the reason, refusing to entertain the thought that maybe, just maybe, his raunchy work has mostly been unfunny. There are a time and a place for politically incorrect jokes, even in Joker which contains one part that elicited so much laughter from myself and others that the guy behind me expressed he was going to hell. My mind immediately seconded those thoughts. Most egregiously, he claims Joker is not a political statement, despite politicians playing a major role in the story. The movie actually opens with radio hosts talking about the decline of Gotham, as Arthur Fleck (as he is known before taking on the Joker persona) dons traditional clown makeup in preparation for his sign-twirling gig and friendly appearances to make children laugh.
The only logical conclusion is that Joaquin Phoenix grasped how so much horror and injustice (often piled on top of one another in quick succession) could potentially create a psychopath that is too close to home real. Of those that do enjoy Joker, there will be two different kinds of reactions, one group will use adjectives such as “awesome” because they have witnessed something undeniably ruthless and dark that unintentionally has positioned itself to become the perfect launching point for yet another stab at a DCEU. Joaquin Phoenix is both insane and insanely good in the role (he takes just about every characteristic thrown at him ranging from laughing disorders to malnourishment to standup comedy, elevating their intensity with dangerous implications the longer the movie goes on), but I do believe this origin story will stick to a one and done deal. Still, he’s not necessary to use this as a foundation for expanding what will inevitably once again become the Batman universe.
The other camp of admirers will see Joker for what it really is; a harrowing mirror of our society when it comes to America’s treatment of mass murderers as celebrities, its cynical take on the most trustworthy politicians, its takedown of the way the 24/7 news cycle responds, its bleak examination of warring societal classes, diminishing empathy from society (a feeling Joker unexpectedly shows at one highly unsettling point), and how downright disturbing its Christ-like portrayal of this serial killer towards his loyal followers during the climax. Todd Phillips is so lost as to the message of his own movie (performing double duty writing the screenplay alongside Scott Silver), that he’s denying it will incite violence despite Joker’s behavior sparking riots in the actual damn movie. Joker is incredible, but “awesome” is the last word anyone should use. Sadly, even if Joker was never a comic book creation, another figure, fictional or not, would be idolized in his place.
If Todd Phillips does do one thing right as a director, it’s not holding back. Joker does indeed borrow elements from Martin Scorsese pictures (specifically, The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, sometimes paying homage to the cinematography of both alongside sharing a similar setting) including a prominent collaborator in Robert De Niro, except it never feels like thievery considering a major component of the narrative sees Arthur Fleck investigating his own upbringing. Also, for enlightening and risky as that is, a few details are not given concrete answers, which should satisfy those that were seemingly against a Joker origin story. Even the most underdeveloped subplots (a rushed blossoming relationship with Zazie Beetz playing a single mother living in the same apartment complex) have fascinating payoffs that expand Arthur’s troubled psyche, so it’s only natural that the more featured dynamics (Arthur’s uncomfortably close bond with his mother) have more challenging peaks.
Then there’s the anarchic ending, which is just plain inescapable to one’s memory, forever going to haunt. Todd Phillips certainly doesn’t understand his Joker film, but exhibits searing craftsmanship with his nauseating acknowledgement of the worst society has become and has to offer; a masterpiece is a masterpiece.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com