This review has taken some time to write. More time, more thought, and more conversations around Joker have led me to a very different place than when I first stepped out of the cinema.
Originally, I was left with questions. So it seems reasonable to look into each of them as you watch me arrive at a conclusion.
Was Joker a wise film to make?
I couldn’t shift a feeling that there was something irresponsible about Joker. It felt as though Hollywood was creating a perfect figurehead for people to get behind. This figurehead represented anarchy, disillusionment, and gave shape to something that could be used for kinds of nefarious purposes.
But then I realised, those factions of society not only don’t need a figurehead made for them, but if they wanted one there are plenty already. V… Rorschach… previous iterations of Joker! In that sense Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix have brought nothing new to the table. So I can set it aside.
Is Joker a clever film?
“If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”Joker – The Killing Joke
Not particularly. It’s pretty broad in the areas of society it wishes to pierce, and it doesn’t delve deeply into any of it. Broad ≠ bad though. I felt bad for the situation Arthur Fleck found himself in; he’s been let down severely by those closest and by larger society, but – perhaps intentionally – we’re not given too much to dig into. He is The Joker after all, and historically his past isn’t something that can be relied upon. You can make of it what you want, but the film isn’t saying anything we haven’t seen before, even if it shouts it clearly.
Is it any good?
Ah, the crux of this enterprise.
There is a lack of decency in Joker. How it treats it’s eventual super-villain is depressing and relentless. Like the sprawling Gotham it depicts, there are no jokes, and you’ll get beaten down by it if you let it.
There’s no doubt that Phoenix’s performance is great. It’s distressing to watch a man so clearly out of his depth with even simple human interaction be treated so poorly. Whilst I never sympathised with Arthur Fleck, I can see how his situation, and this film, can be seen as incendiary.
The inspirations are clear, with the specter of Scorsese looming large over this tale. Recent watches of The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver confirm just how much Joker is inspired by both. Both of those films do a better job with female characters though. In Joker Zazie Beetz is given little to be…well anything really. She exists, and has no particular impact rather than being a small window into Arthur’s frame of mind. Her lack of agency undermines her as a character, and leaves no impact.
The actual Joker part of things is unique, and I particularly enjoyed the final few scenes. In the same way that I can be happy with multiple actors putting on the cowl, I’m happy with several wearing the smile. So overall I’m happy with the film, I’m just under no illusion of how special or unique it is.