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Joker (Movie Review)

A Complicated but Ultimately Empty Film.

About the Film

Talking about this movie is like trying to jog a brisk 5K race through a minefield. Joker is perhaps the most talked about and buzz-worthy movie of the year—and not always for positive reasons. On the one hand, there are critics and viewers who’ve dubbed the movie as a masterpiece. On the other hand, some viewers and media outlets have raised a mass hysteria and condemned it as a “danger to society.” In the end however, Joker turns out to be neither.

This is as much a mixed bag as any movie I’ve reviewed this year. The doomsday level panic and alarm raised toward this film is grossly misplaced; but, it is certainly no masterpiece or monumental film either. Joker exists—much like its titular character—in a messy and largely unsatisfactory no-man’s land between these two extremes.

From a technical and cinematic standpoint, Joker is an expertly crafted film. The cinematography is inventive and consistently interesting, the music is phenomenal, and Joaquin Phoenix is mesmerizing in the title role. Although in a much different movie, Phoenix absolutely deserves to be enshrined alongside the late Heath Ledger in the “Joker Hall of Fame.” The main problem with the film, however, is that beneath these outwardly captivating elements, the film feels so utterly empty.

The film frequently charges into serious thematic material, but seldom has much of interest or worth to say. Like many “gritty” R-Rated films, the film too often mistakes “dark” and “disturbing” for mature or insightful. The film echoes Wyldstyle, in The Lego Movie, when she declares, “Batman’s a true artist. Dark. Brooding…” Of course, there is nothing necessarily wrong with telling a dark or disturbing story. But Joker uses many of these moments as the equivalent to a horror film using cheap “jump-scares.” It goes out of its way—and generally succeeds—at disturbing viewers with the slow-building horror on screen, but it overreaches, and in doing so, divorces itself from the human element that this film deeply needed. This may not be the “dangerous” film that many have declared, but I don’t think it’s a film that society needs right now. In the end, Joker—and the conversations surrounding it—is much ado about nothing.        

For Consideration

On the Surface—(Profanity, Sexual content, violence, etc.).

Profanity: Frequent F-words and other profanities.      

Sexuality: A few minor and suggestive moments, but nothing gratuitous.

Violence: Several graphic moments of bloody violence and death. The violence is treated with justified weight and seriousness, but this is certainly not your typical and sanitized “superhero violence.”     

Beneath the Surface— (Themes, philosophical messages, worldview, etc.)

  1. Mental Health

The film shines a light on the issue of mental health and exposes the dangerous and harmful mistreatment and fear that society frequently has toward the mentally ill. While I commend the film for delving into this important issue, I’m not sure it’s for the better. In the film, Arthur Fleck (the eventual “Joker”) is a severally mentally ill individual. The film never specifies what illness he suffers from, although it continually piles on more and more conditions. Fleck lacks empathy, is obsessive, delusional, angry, depressed, and even suffers from uncontrollable laughter (although this last condition is somewhat vague). In a sense, Fleck has the burden of embodying all mental illness in an almost metaphorical way. As a result, the film isn’t really able to offer any meaningful insight into any of them.

Joker does not have any clearly defined or articulated “message” or “moral.” However, a main point of emphasis is seemingly to expose the mistreatment of the mentally ill and, as a result, to inspire viewers to be more empathetic and compassionate toward them. Yet, Joker largely undercuts itself. If anything, Joker reaffirms the very thing it wants to dispel. Arthur Fleck is not a sympathetic character. Nor is he even a realistic portrayal of mental illness. Rather, Fleck is an exaggerated case of a psychopath. Throughout the film, Fleck is a ticking time-bomb. While increased compassion from the Gotham citizens may have delayed his eventual “snap,” his turn to “the Joker” feels inevitable. Gotham does not “break” Fleck as much as it “exposes” him. If Joker represents the mentally ill, then society should be fearful and unnerved. “Be nice to the mentally ill so that they don’t become psychopaths and kill you” is not an inspiring or helpful message.

There was a moment in my theater that captured my sentiments on this. In the scene, a fearful dwarf is attempting to leave a room after an instant of shocking violence. However, the door is deadbolted and, due to his short stature, he is unable to reach the lock and escape. Despite the weightiness of the scene, many people in my theater were laughing. I can’t speak on behalf of those struggling with mental illness, but at least for me, I don’t think the film handled its theme in a respectful way. Instead, the film seems to use mental health as a plot-device to prop its fictional story, rather than using its story to speak into the reality of mental health; using mental illness as a tool for spectacle and gags.

Final Verdict

The Joker is a confusing character, and Joker is a confusing film. No, this film—despite the hysteria—is not going to compel audiences to go buy clown-masks and rebel against society. If we fearfully and rashly believe that a 2-hour is enough to transform audiences into dangerous psychopathic monsters, then the problem is with us and not the film. At the same time, I don’t think Joker is nearly as profound or stimulating as it thinks it is. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is arguably worth the price of admission, but I’m not sure there’s much value or depth beyond that. Its greatest success may have been to start a cultural conversation on the issues of mental health and the power of film to influence culture. Unfortunately, much like the film itself, I worry that these conversations will be more destructive than constructive. Like the guilty thrill watching a car accident on the side of the rode, Joker is a captivating experience that is hard to look away from but offers little in return.  

Recommendation: While I know there will be many people out there that love this film, I can’t give a recommendation for it. My best advice is that if you’re at all on the fence and concerned about what you’ve seen and heard about it—skip it. This is not the type of movie that will surprise or convince a viewer who does not already enjoy this sort of darker and grittier films. If you have enjoyed similar films, whoever, then you will likely enjoy it more than I did.     

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