Movie Review: Joker

I’ve been putting off watching this movie for quite some time, mainly concerned it was just going to be a disturbing downer of a film. I’m already skittish about the way violence is glorified in media, and I’d read a number of articles critiquing this film for encouraging more violence. But it’s one thing to read an article about a movie, and it’s another to actually watch it. So I decided to skip the State of the Union and watch a different Joker, instead.

It’s an impactful film. One that manages to both make a statement and entertain at the same time, though I use the term “entertain” loosely. It’s definitely disturbing, and I actually found it interesting that I chose to watch it instead of Trump, because in many ways, the message of the movie applies just as much to Trump as it does to violence, mass shootings, and many of today’s societal problems. But more on that in a bit.

The movie traces the downward arc of a man’s descent into madness. A Joker origin story that matches up well with all the superhero origin stories we’ve been inundated with over the years. While it might not have been as fun to watch as seeing Spiderman rise to the challenge and become a real hero, in many ways it is perhaps a more “important” arc to study. How do people become monsters?

It’s comforting to just pass it off as something that happens on its own. That people are born horrific, and so they deserve to be locked up once they reveal how terrible they really are. And it’s the route almost always used in superhero movies. The villain is the villain. They’ll get a few scenes to try and justify their behavior loosely, but the main focus is on what the hero does to win.

The thing is, it’s easy to pass off people we don’t know as villainous. As soon as it’s someone we’re acquainted with, who we know well, then dismissing them lightly becomes much more difficult. This applies to entire peoples as much as it does to individuals. It’s much easier to vilify “the gays” or “the illegals” (or, for that matter, “the Republicans”) when they’re held at arms’ length. When you don’t actually know any of them, and instead can stereotype to your heart’s content.

Joker in this movie is not a sane man, but he’s a man who’s at least been trying to do the right thing. Going to therapy. Taking his medication. Trying to live his dreams. And he’s a man who’s been let down by society time and time again. Can we understand why he snaps in the end and embraces the arch-villain he becomes? Perhaps, at least to an extent. But the more important takeaway for me is just how much Gotham is responsible for the creation of the Joker.

In this way, America is also responsible for its greatest problems. For its bigotry. Mass shootings. Inequality. For Donald Trump. He didn’t come out of nowhere. He ascended to where he is now because we let him. Encouraged him, even. Some of us did it (and continue to do it) actively, whether by voting for him (for whatever reason), campaigning for him, sharing his speeches, wearing his hats, etc. Some of us did it indirectly. Watching his television show back when it was on. Thinking he’d be a good candidate to go against Clinton, because he’d be an “easy win.” Ignoring him and hoping he’ll go away.

It’s important to remember that all of the troubles Trump represents for so many aren’t exclusive to the man. Voting him out of office (or back into office) won’t make those problems go away. He’s the symptom, not the cause, just as Joker is the result of the garbage Gotham wasn’t willing to handle. The problems that were easier to just gloss over than actually deal with. The garbage strike in the movie just brings this fact up to the surface. You can ignore the trash, but it all ends up somewhere. When the system shuts down, it just makes it harder to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Does the movie glorify violence? I don’t think so. Quite the contrary, though of course that won’t be the case for some of its viewers. Just as Arthur Fleck can sit through a stand up routine and laugh at all the wrong times, there are people out there who will view this movie and walk away thinking Joker is a hero. That’s troubling, but it’s all the more reason for the movie to be seen and understood, because those are the people we need to figure out how to help, or at least how to contain, so that they remain at the Arthur Fleck level and never reach Joker status.

I could go on and on about this movie, and that’s a sign of how strong it is. How, then, do I rate it? There, I’m torn. It’s in the 9-10/10 range. Is it perfect? I’m not sure. It leaves a terrible aftertaste, and it feels slimy to give a movie like that a 10, but that’s the point, isn’t it? As I think over the various aspects of the movie, I have a hard time finding faults. The acting is tremendous. Joaquin Phoenix does a superb job inhabiting that role. The direction and production are all spot on. If there is a flaw, it’s that it’s predictable in many ways. Some of that is to be expected, but some of it just didn’t quite line up. (Specifically, I’m thinking of the way the film handled Fleck’s girlfriend, though I won’t say more than that.)

So in the end, I think I’ll give it a 9.5, but it’s awfully close. Should you watch it? I’d argue yes, though you should be aware it’s R for scattered language, some very violent scenes, and its disturbing nature throughout. Will it win Oscars? It might. I could see Best Actor, Best Costume Design, and Best Makeup as being the likeliest categories, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it pick up a few more. I doubt it will be a sweep.

I’m running out of days to watch the rest, but I’m going to keep trying. Up next is Parasite. Not sure when I’ll be able to catch it, though . . .


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