By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – October 2, 2019)
I’m not sure I’ve ever written a review quite like the one you’re about to read, because I’ve never been more conflicted on something I’ve seen and had to comment on, but there are a few truths about Todd Phillips’ Joker film that I can tell you about, and without spoiling any of what you’re likely paying to see, here they are in easily digestible format.
- You can hand Joaquin Phoenix the Best Actor Oscar right now, and should you choose not to do so, it’s time to cancel the Academy Awards, because they will have lost all meaning and integrity.
- Regardless of how upset your children, even younger teenagers within your household are likely to be, because no doubt a lot of them want to see this, they have ZERO business watching this movie in any respect whatsoever.
- I’m incredibly conflicted, but discussing the various theories about this movie will cover a lot of ground. Brad Willis and I will be devoting the next Pop 6 episode entirely to Joker, which we’ve now both seen and talked about extensively.
As dark as you assume this film to be going in, it’s darker. This is the origin story of what director Todd Phillips originally described as, “a Joker-like figure.” Speaking of Phillips, this ain’t The Hangover, Road Trip, or even War Dogs. This is more the guy you’ve read about, the one that wants to do impacting, deeply powerful motion pictures. He went to painstaking lengths to separate his story from anything related to the Batman canon that has come before, but he has one thing in his favor. The Joker generally doesn’t have a backstory, with the character basically existing as the devil on your shoulder compared to Batman’s angel. These two are mirror images of each other, but approaching everything in entirely opposite directions.
Late in the movie, Joker plainly and emotionlessly states, “I don’t believe in anything.” That – while some (or much) of what came before in the story not really syncing up with the villain we know and love – is the perfect description of both THE Joker and Joker. This is someone with no creed, as Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a dangerously weird, misunderstood, abused, overlooked, mess of a human being. He also has a mental illness that manifests itself in several different ways, which you’ll discover through the film’s 122-minute runtime.
One of the critiques coming from the festival screenings was that Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver (The Fighter) created a character in Fleck that was deplorable, frightening, and disgusting, but in an explainable fashion that excused much of his behavior. I rolled my eyes at those comments, right up until I saw the film, where I did feel sympathy for Arthur. This is a man who you shouldn’t root for in any way, but you’ll battle yourself and find yourself doing just that at times. He’s disturbed, he’s confused, he’s sinister, and he displays all the signs of mental illness and even moral sin that corrupts, BUT there’s sort of a reason for it.
That leads me to ask, should the Joker have a reason for anything? He doesn’t believe in anything. He doesn’t have a moral compass. He’s chaos incarnate. However, with no true origin story, Phillips can tell whatever version he wants, and as long as it’s plausible, it works. Here, it does work, even with a few inconsistencies, and those warts can be burned off because Joker is less a movie and more a character study mind bender designed to keep you off-balance as a viewer.
When you come to the Big 6 Blog and read my reviews, you want me to tell you what I think and whether you should spend either time or money, or both, to see something you have some degree of interest in. If you want to see Joker, you’re going to see Joker regardless of what I tell you. But, as I was exiting the theater, a critic friend and I were chatting and he mentioned something that bears repeating. This is not a movie you walk out of and say, “Man I really liked that!”
Often, it’s a nearly impossible watch. This thing is difficult, at times it’s bloody and violent, it puts horrific images in front of your face for a few split-seconds, and watching Fleck attempt to navigate his life before a full metamorphosis into the clown prince of crime is intentionally cringeworthy. Here’s what I can tell you about Joker. It’s maybe the best movie I’ve ever seen that I might seriously never watch again. This is Requiem for a Dream kind of stuff folks. If you know me, you know Batman has been my favorite piece of pop culture since I was a small child, and the Joker character in particular has always been my favorite, particularly Heath Ledger, but also Mark Hamill on Batman: The Animated Series. Those two are the gold standard… and Nicholson was great as well.
I saw Joker. I particularly enjoyed how the last 20 minutes were executed, could not pull my eyes from the screen, was entirely captivated, blown away by Joaquin Phoenix, and felt as the credits rolled that I was good as it related to the property. I might talk about it for years and years, but I really don’t know that I want to go through that experience again. I don’t know that I need my Batman universe (or in this case whatever Todd Phillips created) to be THIS dark and THIS…well…gross.
There is a subtle message in Joker, which I compare as the scarier side of Andy Kaufman meets Mr. Robot, that does point to the current political climate and the machinations of how people act, but it’s only there if you want it. Again, Joker believes in nothing, so attaching anything other than chaos and twisted, warped results to his decision-making is futile. The movie takes place in the summer of 1981, which isn’t directly pointed out, but emerges if you’re paying close attention. The time frame doesn’t matter though, because what takes place within Joker could have occurred at virtually any time since the advent of television.
The rest of the cast is solid enough, with Robert De Niro being especially strong in his limited role, but make no mistake, this is a showpiece for Joaquin Phoenix, and you’re not supposed to pay attention to anyone else, even Fleck’s own mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), who plays a central part in the storytelling and in the devolution of Arthur into…well, into what he would become. Zazie Beetz (Atlanta) also does a nice job, though again, Phoenix overshadows everything.
Joaquin Phoenix is as good as you’ll ever see, as haunting as you’ll ever see, and will leave you deeply uncomfortable, which means he did his job exceedingly well. This is by far the best acting performance of the decade… one of the best of the century thus far without any doubt. He will WALK to this Oscar, deservedly so, and we’ll stand and applaud it. There should be no debate about this. Even in a year where Leonardo DiCaprio was superb and Brad Pitt likely to win for that same Tarantino movie in a supporting role… neither of them are even remotely close to Phoenix. His work stands next to anything you could name, without any doubt. It’s not my favorite “Joker,” because I’m not sure it IS the Joker. What it is is spellbinding and engrossing, but more than anything it’s unsettling.
This is an acting job you won’t forget, perhaps ever, and it’s enough to recommend Joker just to witness it in action.
So, did I like it? That’s the question. And here’s where we get to the review you’ve never seen from me before. I HAVE NO IDEA. I liked portions of it tremendously. I adored the performance. My reverence and love for the character and the larger universe known no bounds. But, my critic friend is right, this isn’t a movie you “love” and can’t wait to see again and gush over. It’s one you think about and consider from a myriad of different angles. Joker is unlike anything you’ve seen before. We will see what comes from it, if anything, past the accolades and the awards.
Should you see it? If you wanted to before, yes, but know what you’re getting into. You won’t leave feeling good and you’re going to be uneasy. There are a few laughs, but even they come in situations that are black as a moonless sky. Joker will leave you psychologically spent and emotionally frazzled. The chaos the character is known for will reside within your brain. It will stick with you.
And, quite simply, I’m not certain that’s a good thing.
I’m @JMartZone. Knock knock.