by Hans A. Carpenter
Release Date: October 4
Director: Todd Phillips
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, and Zazie Beetz
Mister Marquee Says: LEGENDARY
It’s a shame that I can’t just write about a really good movie without addressing the controversy surrounding this film. Certain media fear mongers have portrayed this movie as sympathetic to mass shooters and a potentially dangerous inspiration for would-be killers. We’ve been down this road before in art many, many times. Most of these pieces came out before the film was released.
Much has been made of the violent content in this movie and, to be honest, it’s relatively tame by Hollywood standards. Even leaving out the stylized violence of John Wick or Kill Bill, this movie isn’t as brutal as even the gritty Netflix Marvel shows. Bullseye in the Daredevil show matched the profile of a mass killer and racked up a graphic body count on screen and where are the pitchforks for that show? Or Punisher? That’s as far as I’ll go on the controversy, and frankly I wish I could just talk about a really good movie and skip this part. But, hey, there’s an elephant in the room, and this is the hand I’m dealt, a hand full of jokers.
Joker is uncomfortable, there is no doubt, because it hits a raw nerve. Todd Phillips doesn’t hit that nerve in an exploitative or distasteful way, but in a way that probably makes a lot of people uncomfortable because it’s true. Arthur Fleck is a mentally ill man beaten down by tragedy and a cruel society. His government-provided therapist abandons him, social services loses funding, and he can no longer get his medication. The film is his slide into madness, murder, and ultimately his transformation into the Clown Prince of Crime, The Joker.
Todd Phillips takes a comic book character and inserts him into a Scorsese film, borrowing heavily from Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. When people start comparing on screen Jokers, it’s kind of apples to apples. Joker is one of those universal characters that translates to a lot of interpretations. You can have a silly Joker (Caesar Romero). You can have a silly Joker who has fun but has a scary edge (Jack Nicholson). You can have an agent of chaos playing the role of Satan in the story of Jobe, trying to win a chess game for the soul of a city and corrupt a symbol of virtue (Heath Ledger). You can have a bad Hot Topic commercial (Jared Leto). Joaquin Phoenix is something else entirely. His portrayal of a mentally ill loner is harrowing in that it engenders sympathy and disgust in equal measures. You can feel bad for the guy as he struggles with a condition that makes him uncontrollably laugh in the wrong situations, or as he suffers at the hands of a cruel world. You can also condemn him when he does evil things and becomes a monster. You can sympathize without excusing, have compassion while condemning his actions. Life isn’t black and white, and neither is this movie. We see the world from Arthur’s perspective, and that perspective is unreliable at best.
Phoenix is nothing short of mesmerizing in this role. My only gripe is that Joker is a bit short of philosophy for my taste. The Joker has always been a very philosophical character, but that is also built through his conflict with Batman. The Dark Knight got this right. Joker is the embodiment of clinical nihilism, and Batman the symbol of conventional morality. Todd Phillips brings the nihilism in buckets, and has made a very challenging film that I think will be more fondly remembered in the future.