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REVIEW: ‘Joker’ Is As Disturbing As It Is Fascinating

“See, madness is, as you know, like gravity

…all it takes is a little push!” – The Joker (The Dark Knight)

The above quote stuck with me leading up to, during, and after screening Todd Phillips’ much talked about and hotly debated, Joker. Yes, it applies to a completely different movie with different contexts and characters, but it also very much plays as the unspoken mantra of 2019’s Joker. Not only that, it may apply to certain vulnerable, potentially violent viewers of the film.

I know, I know – I, like many of you, don’t feel like there’s a large correlation between violent acts and violent films; however, when a film frames certain acts in such a way that it glorifies and praises the violence, those most prone to such acts may take it as that “little push” they needed. I hope viewers are intelligent enough to know that a movie about a madman doesn’t condone madness, but, in this day and age, it’s hard to say. Also, having seen Joker, Phillips and company are unable to make it apparent that they don’t condone its main character’s behavior, in the end. And yet, even with this in mind, I still highly recommend seeing Joker, as it’s one of the more fascinating and entrancing viewing experiences you’re going to have this year.

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If you’ve been living under a rock, Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix as the titular, infamous villain in an origin story that sees him on his initial tragic descent into madness. It also stars Robert DeNiro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, and multiple others in varying degrees of cameo, but, make no mistake, this movie is all Joaquin Phoenix. He’s in every scene and lifts the movie far beyond the text just through his talent, charisma, and sheer force of will. He alone is worth the price of admission and the Oscar nomination talk is not just talk. Joaquin has turned in, so far, the performance of the year.

Cinematographer, Lawrence Sher, a mainstay of Todd Phillips’ films, adds more depth to his already varied skillset. With the Joker, he and Phillips are able to create a look and feel that can only be described as ’70s/early ’80s Scorsese (Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, Mean Streets), right down to identical shots and homages planted throughout. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Scorsese should feel worshipped to the point of exhaustion – not that it’s a bad thing.

The writing by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver (The Fighter, The Finest Hours) comes out less unscathed. At times, the dialogue is witty and poignant, mostly in the hands of Phoenix. At other times, it’s as subtle as a giant, clown-sized hammer to the face. It’s clear Phillips and Silver wanted to say something with Joker, I’m just not entirely sure they got the right point across. If they did intend the film to truly be what it is, then, as mentioned above, this film may be as dangerous as the title character himself.

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Speaking of the character of the Joker, since this is still a comic book film, there is the question of how this will be received by fans, in general. The faction that wants comic-accurate portrayals of their heroes and villains will likely be very disappointed. Phillips himself even admitted that he has no interest in taking inspiration from comic book source material, and that is fairly clear. Those who are a little more open to a realistic, period character study on what exactly would create the Joker in our actual society might find themselves pleasantly surprised. Either way, it’s going to be divisive.

Walking out of the theater I couldn’t help but wrestle with myself on what exactly my thoughts were on Joker. On one hand, it’s an absolute masterclass in acting and an approach to superhero films that will likely inspire more innovation. On the other hand, it’s ham-fisted with its message to the point of being minacious. Ultimately, if it must be judged on a scale by which we judge all art, then we must ask, “Does it elicit emotion?” And the answer to that question is emphatically and unequivocally, “YES!” The more important question may just be, “Who exactly is the joke on, here?” Seeing how much I enjoyed it despite its flaws, the joke may well be on me.


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