REVIEW: Joker

Gotham is so tangible you can smell the city streets; a community with profoundly broken power structures and even worse off individuals. Enter Arthur Fleck, a man traumatized by circumstance and ready to make the worst decisions imaginable. We as an audience watch helplessly as he creeps into delusion and violent tendency. It’s the opposite of Heath Ledger’s mysterious force of nature, a Joker with clear origins, and a world willing to embrace his message of chaos.

Joaquin Phoenix commits very very very hard to these ideas and sells himself as a product of broken environment quite well. His mannerisms are profoundly creepy while also being deeply sad: the dancing, the uncontrollable laughter, his paper-thin frame. I just wanted the poor guy to get some help…until he started shooting people. Unfortunately, a convincing performance does not a good movie make.

Joker, or as I like to think of it, Taxi Driver 2: Gotham Boogaloo, is perhaps my least favorite film of the year.

 

Here’s the brass tacks, director Martin Scorsese made a lot of his most prolific work in a post-Vietnam America. Society was flooded with PTSD and had most of its trust in power structures obliterated. With that came a certain cynicism that was ripe for moody flicks that examine the psychology of anti-heros. Two of Scorsese’s films, The King of Comedy and the already mentioned Taxi Driver, immediately come to mind when I think about this one.

Joker desperately wants to be these movies but updated for 2019.

In theory it’s a good idea. We live in an unstable world and perhaps if executed with more thoughtfulness Joker could have been a nice little commentary on modern distrust. It works hard establishing motifs of class warfare, the failure of government, and the isolation of the mentally ill. But the movie didn’t do nearly enough to make any of these ideas seem like its own.

Joker is not stylistically modern, it takes most of its characterization from the films I mentioned above, and it fails miserably to give us an exact understanding of what its thematic goals are because several key plot points are shown to not actually exist. We just sit in this tragic Scorsese homage as a man goes from one bad thing to the next, unsure of what is real and what is fake, and choosing the path of moral bankruptcy every single time. I have seen this film before done with more nuance and better cinematography.

The only aspect that I found particularly new was a deep brooding disenchantment that accumulated in furiously lashing out against feeling anything displeasurable. Don’t like what someone says about you? Just kill them! You’ll be celebrated in the streets for your courageous acts against a system of oppression. Heck, you’ll feel better about life! Sure the soundtrack might be filled with a lot of spooky flavor but doesn’t Joaquin look cool? He smokes cigarettes and dances funny dances and has all these followers. Isn’t that just dandy? Don’t you want to be edgy like him?

I bet we get Hot Topic merch within weeks.

 

Now, I’m not the world’s biggest Taxi Driver fan, but even I can see how completely wasted that movie was on the filmmakers of Joker.

A man deeply scarred by the Vietnam war (played by Robert De Niro) is slowly losing his grip upon return to the United States. He lives in New York City, a town so tangible you can smell the streets; a community with profoundly broken power structures and even worse off individuals. He eventually succumbs to the madness, killing several people, and being hailed as a hero by the final shot.

Taxi Driver asks its audience to parse why it’s okay to murder pimps and drug dealers but morally reprehensible to assassinate a congressman. It asks why some young girls get caught up in prostitution and other become the leaders of political movements. It doesn’t portray Robert De Niro’s character as an example of rebellion. He’s not cool, things never really look up for him, and even when held as a hero De Niro’s character remains a sad broken man. More than that, he’s an unfortunate fact used to illustrate a grander point about how society operates. A reflection of late 70s zeitgeist and how popular opinions needed to change for any sense of justice to be achieved.

And that movie still inspired someone to point a gun at Ronald Reagan.

 

In a time where mass shootings are unfortunately commonplace, in a time where the character of the Joker has already been connected with acts of violence against innocent people, don’t you think this film is in some pretty poor taste?

It’s a question that overshadows all my thoughts about the movie, and while Joker may be a solid character study, it’s also a film I find monotone, unoriginal, and dangerous.

1/5