The deeply disturbing JOKER is both flawed message and brilliant messenger.
By Matt Cummings
It’s not often that a film comes around which shocks me into wishing it had never been made, not because it’s bad but because of its ability to inspire violence in its name. Such is the case with JOKER, a deeply disturbing movie that should not be seen by audiences younger than 18. It’s Greek tragedy writ large, featuring an Oscar-worthy performance by its lead but suffering from a terribly-flawed premise.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally-challenged 30-something living in Gotham with his dying mother and working part time as a performance clown. No matter what he does to make joy, Gotham finds a way to take it from him, whether it’s through a violent attack by teens, or his accidentally killing of three drunk Wall Street types on the subway. Some rays of light give Arthur hope: he meets a single mother (Zazie Beetz) and his budding career as a comedian gets the notice of wildly-popular late-night host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro), who invites him to his show. But it’s all smoke as Arthur’s delusions and several devastating twists force him to commit unspeakable crimes that will eventually mold him into The Clown Prince of Crime.
Depending on how you view it, Director Todd Phillips has either crafted one of the greatest comic book movies of all time, or has hacked together a manifesto/how-to-guide for disaffected people to commit horrible violence as a solution to their problems. Regardless of your stand, JOKER is a deeply flawed film. It projects the mentally-stunted Arthur as a sort of messiah, ready to lead the disaffected – not because he’s a brilliant manipulator – but because he craves attention, or merely wants a hug. Arthur is so stunted that it quickly became impossible to believe that he could or would ever be smart enough to become The Clown Prince of Crime. That flaw weighs upon the film as it from a turgid second to a downright shocking third act. Granted, Arthur is dealt several unbelievable blows that would upend any person, but they don’t make us empathize with Arthur, instead forcing us to ask how this village idiot could affect so much despair.
Phillips and Cinematographer Lawrence Sher have unquestionably crafted one of the most striking films of the past few years, bathing Gotham in a WATCHMEN-like 80’s dinginess that succeeds as a visual masterpiece. Phoenix too should be given high praise for his transformative role; it’s a game changer for the genre but also a warning to future directors and actors. JOKER will upend the market on mustache-twirling baddies, but it might also convince hacks that being dumb can also lead you to being feared…after you’ve killed several people in the process. That’s not a healthy premise to hang you hat on, but in terms of story this one is just getting warmed up.
There is a murder near the end of JOKER that is sure to divide people along current political lines. I fear some will actually stand to cheer for that person’s demise, pitting the act against our established societal norms to dislike vocal critics of real-life elected leaders but never wishing they would actually die. Some will confuse his onscreen death as a cathartic moment for his fierce criticism of the current government, but the film simply adds that controversy to the inferno, suggesting that the only answer to the world’s inequity between rich and poor is to eviscerate it, beginning with said vocal critic. That’s not only unrealistic, but an inherently dangerous path for Phillips to take, who seems ready to lead a revolution regardless of the consequences. With threats of impeachment and a Trump civil war to cleanse society a real possibility, Phillips has waded into waters he has no business being in.
JOKER is both deeply disturbing and deeply flawed. The suggestion that anyone can achieve their goals by violent means is a dangerous message in any time; but given our current political climate, it might inspire some only half as disturbed as Arthur to commit terrible acts of violence. A film with that kind of power might not be suitable for a theatrical release, but it’s too bad that any real debate over the film’s merits have been lost in the cacophony. Perhaps it’s a film that the Joker himself would have craved: madness breeding hysteria to scare and torture its intended victims. If that was Phillips’ wish, then consider the mission accomplished.
JOKER is rated a hard R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images and has a runtime of 124 minutes. Parents are strongly encouraged to leave anyone under the age of 18 at home.