Joker would make a great double feature with Paul Schrader’s 2017 film First Reformed. Schrader wrote and directed First Reformed because he felt angry at the state of the world and disconnected from the culture around him. He felt sympathetic toward people who become radicalized in the world in which we are living now, and yet Schrader’s faith made him realize God’s grace and the possibility of redemption, even in such a world.
I believe Todd Phillips made Joker from a similar mindset. He felt bitter toward our culture because of our division and turmoil, and he felt distanced from it, partially because he has found he is unable to make raunchy, politically incorrect, comedy flicks into mega-popular, majorly mainstream movies like he once did (hilarious and even politically incorrect comedy is still being made, unlike Phillips recently implied in a Vanity Fair interview, though the comedy is not often in the form of mainstream film, Phillips’s one-time audience now more likely to stay home and watch something like Dave Chappelle’s Sticks & Stones). More importantly, Phillips felt bitter for the reasons many of us do, as we peer out the windows of our houses and see the figurative and literal, physical and virtual, fires burning all around us, or as we’re out there among the flames.
Phillips observed the radicalized crazies in America on both the political left and right, Antifa and the alt-right for instance, and felt sympathy for their reactions against our society. Yet when Phillips took a step back, he realized the foundational wrong in this reactionary response. He used Joker to explore the why and the how of someone actually becoming radical in such a negative way, and he investigated the hand the rest of us – parents, civil servants, citizens, etc. – have in creating such monsters, and the ways in which such extremists might influence the mobs around them. People often go extreme because of the places they perceive themselves to be, and Joker pulls back to show this and the ultimate consequences of such outrage.
Joker illustrates the mentally ill and society transitioning from a mindset of suicide to a mindset of revenge, due to a lack of support systems . . . familial, societal, governmental, anything. Phillips is trying to get at the root of the issue. We like to talk about the symptoms, but we rarely discuss the roots, which ought to occupy our inquiries instead. At least Phillips recognizes the symptoms never go away if the roots remain. And Joker is better, in its portrayal of the mentally ill and our reactions to them and interactions with them, than something like Split, which exploits their issues and abuse for escapist gawking, or, worse, the hundreds of overly serious, corny Hollywood dramas that portray the mentally ill as simple victims, both alternatives condescending.
Because Phillips is not a subtle or particularly original filmmaker, and he is prone to employing cliche after cliche and just can’t help being obvious, though he is skilled in many technical areas of direction, he borrowed, to put it lightly, from previous movies that have explored similar ideas – particularly The King of Comedy (Joker even serves as a spiritual sequel to The King of Comedy, sanctioned by Scorsese’s executive production credit on Joker), Taxi Driver, and Fight Club, but also Falling Down, American Psycho, and You Were Never Really Here, as well as comics like The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, and V for Vendetta – and sneaked all that into a superhero franchise movie in order to bring his thoughts to a modern, mainstream audience, many of which have not seen many of the works Phillips is referencing.
Are the films to which Phillips pays homage via Joker better than Joker? Yes, all the ones I’ve named are at least, and if you have seen them, nothing in Joker will surprise you. I also don’t think Joker is all that much better than Phillips’s previous movie, his first departure from straight-up comedy in 16 years, the also Scorsese inspired, true story comedy crime drama War Dogs. However, I applaud Warner Bros. Pictures and DC Films for using their money and name and the intellectual property they hold to allow a unique filmmaker to create a film in which he is attempting to say something specific and communicate a vision. In doing so, Warner and DC produced their best DC film, technically speaking, since Christopher Nolan’s Batman series.
Yes, I do have problems with Joker’s plot stealing so boldly from better films, but at least that shows cojones in deed. The boldness alone of Joker is admirable. If you’re going to copy, you’d better copy from the best. And there is more to the film. The dialogue is often well-written; the cinematography, lighting, etc. are excellent, especially cinematographer Lawrence Sher’s implementations of various cinematography methods to enhance each scene appropriately, matching the right technique to the right moment without being flashy, a rare talent; and Joaquin Phoenix turned in a truly stunning and scary performance as the mentally disturbed Arthur Fleck. Many scenes in Joker deserve to become iconic, and will.
Is the movie itself great? No, the derivative plot, coming too close to rip-off territory, being the main detracting factor, and Joker doesn’t contain the spiritual and moral depth of Scorsese or Schrader, nor the cultural significance. Joker is actively adolescent and never gets into deep questions of maturation or evil. I also dislike the potential cop-out that almost any of the film could be Arthur’s imagination. The best movies that deal with the real versus the fantasy, like Fight Club or Stay, are more purposeful in it.
If we decry most of the superhero movies as theme park rides, even if they are good ones, I think we must also do the same for a potential future of superhero imitations of classics and point audiences to the actual classics instead, or at least in addition. Just as I have problems with J.J. Abrams ripping off Spielberg and Lucas, so do I take issue with Phillips doing the same with Scorsese.
Yet Joker is still a good psychological thriller, and worth your time for sure, especially for its warning to outrage culture. If you are looking for a Joker origin movie, this is probably the best for which you could ever ask, and it is fair to call Joker great as The Joaquin Phoenix Show and in the film’s style and homages.
Joker will rightfully establish Todd Phillips as an auteur on whom to keep our eyes. He got to make the movie he wanted to make here, and for that he should be thankful and proud. The comedy auteur of Old School and The Hangover has become a legitimate “artist.” I like Joker, but I’m even more interested in what Phillips does next.
As for the controversy surrounding Joker, it’s utterly ridiculous and unwarranted. The media, in good ole’ Tipper Gore fashion, speculated Joker would incite violence and stir up strife anew, especially among angry, anti-social white men. Tipper and the PMRC were wrong in the ‘80s and ‘90s to think heavy metal and rap were going to inspire mass murder, riots, and all other sorts of nefarious hate. The ultra-woke journalists and critics of today are wrong to keep thinking various entertainments are going to do the same.
So much of the original online chatter was from folks who hadn’t even seen the film yet. Those people should have just waited until the movie came out in wide release to discuss it. The arguments about the film’s politics are especially silly. Joker is ultimately quite liberal, even progressive in parts, in its messages, though occasional conservative spirits pop up as well. It’s no Cinestate production, that’s for sure.
Arthur Fleck here is less of a sympathetic character – though you will probably feel sympathy for him, to some degree – and more of a pathetic character for which you will feel pity. We’re not meant to empathize with him. Instead, Phillips wants us to ask ourselves: Are we helping create Jokers in our world? What can we do to prevent the creation of such monsters? How are we failing the mentally ill?
The Joker and the rioters he inspires are a reflection of Antifa and the alt-right, not a recommended course of action. There was a time people understood this. . . or was there? Natural Born Killers, in 1994, had such a reaction in the press as Joker has received. So did Taxi Driver in 1976. So did a multitude of art before, after, and in between, like A Clockwork Orange in 1971, Do the Right Thing in 1989, and The Dark Knight in 2008. Art in films works well as reflection but poorly as instruction. Art must not be forced to fit social utilitarianism standards, must not be forced to serve as therapy or propaganda. A long history of literature and films has proven audiences can read and watch character studies of evil people without becoming those evil people, and those readers and viewers often even see things about their world they wouldn’t have otherwise seen, because they were confronted with darkness and horror in an affecting, effective way.
X could possibly encourage Y, so X must go. This argument against free speech has been wielded by many an oppressing group of people over the years of humanity’s existence. The Jewish and Roman governments used it to silence Christians. The Catholic church used it to put down so-called heretics. John Milton, best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost, criticized it in his Areopagitica in 1644. Lenny Bruce was fighting it in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. The American government argued it in the ’60s to suppress war protesters and civil rights advocates. Countries like China use it now. We’ll never be rid of this argument, I’m afraid.
Some critics have complained Phillips isn’t willing to engage in discussion about the things he’s obviously trying to discuss through his film. These commentators shouldn’t worry themselves with this. Phillips already displayed his thoughts to the world through Joker. Plus, he and his team know, as John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock knew in their day, that as soon as you begin discussing the messages, morals, and meanings, most of the popular audience begins to lose interest, because they don’t want to be preached at, or because they will perceive the artist as pretentious. I’m sure Phillips knew he had already done enough hitting over the head in his movie without having to talk to the press about the themes and further explain them or his thoughts about them.
Of course, it’s also likely that Phillips and Co. knew stirring up controversy would be good for the movie, like the provocateurs of old, and if this is the case, it worked, baiting our modern day Puritans into deriding the flick and thus raising popular interest. How are you going to cancel a big budget superhero movie?
Journalists and critics ought to learn from the uselessness of pre-release hysteria, but they never seem to do so. Oh, well. Audiences have once again proven to be less stupid and susceptible than the media thinks they are.