HOLLYWOOD—This is a review that might have been the most analytical I’ve written in years as a film critic. To say that I’m torn, bewildered, lost, captivated, stunned are just a few words I can utilize to describe the emotion I felt while watching “Joker” and after leaving the theater. Do you recall the last time you watched a movie that had so much chatter well after the movie ended? Well, I don’t and this one ranks pretty high if you’re asking me America.
Look, there is plenty of talk about violence in the film, and I think that is overreached. I’ve seen horror movies from the 80s, 90s and 00s that have WAY MORE violence than this movie. However, the problem with the violence in the “Joker” is that it’s visceral and so unexpected it’s horrifying to watch on the screen. I can’t recall the last time I went to the movies and there were massive warning signs about this movie. The theater was carding people left and right ensuring that no one under the age of 17 got to see the movie without a parent or guardian with them.
This narrative is some of the best I’ve witnessed in years. This movie grabs your attention within the first 5 minutes and doesn’t let go until its final moments. Hands down the script is spectacular; while wicked, it just sutures you into this disturbing tale where you question throughout the entire movie rather this is real or not and that is a testament to the subtlety of the dialogue, the pacing from director Todd Philips and the phenomenal Joaquin Phoenix.
Never in a million years did I suspect anyone to be able to top Heath Ledger’s take on The Joker from “The Dark Knight,” but what Phoenix does with this character is haunting. You empathize with this guy; you feel for him; you want to give him a hug, but it forces you to wonder if giving that hug is an invitation to mayhem you may not want at your doorstep. Phoenix presents to the audience a version of Arthur Fleck who is a compassionate person whose life spirals after being delivered a series of bad luck. From getting whacked with a sign and later beat up by a group of teens or losing his job as a clown after taking a gun to a hospital.
Here’s the problem with Arthur Fleck; we want to assume everything we’re seeing and being told is 100 percent truthful, but you are forced to question the reality of the situation considering Arthur’s diagnosis. He has psychotic breaks, he spent time in a mental hospital, he’s caring for his sick mother, he wants to be a comic. He has weekly therapy sessions, not to mention taking a load of medications to treat his mental illness. You don’t know what is real or fake, but there are definite moments where you’ll tell yourself, “OMG, this is real. Wait, that can’t be real can it.” It happens more often than not.
The ability of “Joker” to tap into social consciousness is scary as hell. I would be lying if I told you I was NOT nervous while watching this movie. With stories of heighted security in theaters, and just the notion that someone sociopath might want to enact some anarchy was my biggest concern with this movie. Gotham is dealing with major issues of crime, poverty and unrest, and it felt like this movie was screaming about the issues involving our current state of politics and President Donald Trump, without actually saying it. Did I think the movie intended for that possible correlation to transpire? No, but this movie’s ability to allow a spectator to make that possible connection is frightening as hell.
That is just one of the theme’s the flick tackles, in addition, to mental health issues, the lack of care from the government for those who don’t have the insurance to afford the medication and treatment needed, screams wonders about our current treatment for the mentally in society. Just dump them onto the streets, instead of giving them the treatment they need with therapy and medication. I could not help the notion that this flick was a form of propaganda and that scares the living daylights out of me. Why? Someone who might not be on the cusp of reality would see this movie and feel the need to encourage an uprising to go against the hierarchy and those in power.
Do I think that was the intent of director Todd Phillips while making this movie? No, but as a critic if you cannot SEE that you’re not doing your job as a critic which is highlighting the overall power of a movie regardless of how good or bad it is. This movie has a slow burn of chaos, that elevates as it reaches its climax and we see Arthur spiral as he transforms into The Joker and the first image of the character in makeup, and attire sent chills down my spine. That first glimpse of the character staring directly at the audience is scary and I mean scary as hell.
As noted, Phoenix is the star of the movie, but we cannot forget to discuss other solid offerings from his supporting cast including Frances Conroy, who portrays Arthur’s mother, whose backstory sheds plenty of light about Arthur himself. There is also a small, but powerful performance by Robert De Niro as late-night talk show host Murray Franklin that is eerily similar to a character in director Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.” Murray’s character and Phoenix’s portrayal of a man somewhat obsessed if not inspired by Walter reminded me greatly of that 80s classic that many people don’t know about. In an interesting play, De Niro played the comic who was losing sight of reality in that movie, whereas this time De Niro is portraying the character that has inspired someone who doesn’t have it all there.
Phoenix does not just dawn the look, but delivers quirky mannerisms of a villain that is eerie and that laugh, if it does not send chills down the spine you don’t know fear. I would be baffled and I mean baffled if Phoenix does not receive a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance. Can he win? That is another story, but what he does with this character is the best acting I’ve seen this year alone, let alone in the past 5-10 years. This is what you call acting people; Phoenix disappeared and all I saw was Arthur Fleck aka Joker.
“Joker” is a movie you have to see more than once to truly analyze what has unfolded on the screen. It’s like a horror movie, but it’s not. It’s a drama that touches on dark material. Civil unrest, crime, violence, mental illness, psychiatric care, social politics, humanity, deception and how with the right push or two someone who may or not be sane can spiral into a mindset of sociopath and once down that rabbit hole it’s impossible to escape. “Joker” is a powerful piece of cinema, but as I noted it’s a dangerous piece of cinema at the same time.