Film review – Title: Joker / Director: Todd Phillips / Released: 2019
Readers often think that we, film reviewers, like to bash a film every now and then. But this is far from the truth. Personally, I avoid writing a negative review – I’d rather not review the film at all unless the latter has been a hotly debated feature. Which is certainly the case with Joker.
Let me begin by expressing my personal view so we can get this out of the way: yes, the film is as shallow and as morally dangerous as many critics have pointed out.
The fact that the movie is plotless has nothing to do with it. But when a film that lacks plot tackles such important issues like mental health and tries to get away with it by avoiding any in-depth character study, it’s like asking to have your cake and eat it too. Of course, there are numerous plot holes, significant and trivial ones. The most obvious being the age difference between Joker and the really young Bruce unless, as Steven. D. Greydanus points out in The Catholic Register, this is something that might be addressed in a sequel. But this is just the icing on the top. There are far too many weaknesses, making one wonder how on earth a film that ignores many directional guidelines managed to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Especially, when one bears in mind the ethical issues that are here thrown out of the window.
Joker is first and foremost a political film. Non-Americans will find it hard to associate with some historical facts that the director emphatically paraphrases, such as the 1984 subway shooting by Bernhard Goetz.
But then again, no viewer could miss the racial and social stereotyping. Many of the characters that Joker stalks or is annoyed by are black people, there are hints of anti-Republican ranting, not to mention of course the tactless, appalling glorification of violence. With the number of mass shootings rapidly increasing in the US, one wonders if what we really need is a film where the ambiguous main protagonist, who happens to be a murderer, is portrayed as the innocent victim (especially when the film avoids a character study), hence his crimes are justified. I am strongly in agreement with Susan’s Granger point that “While Hollywood has a long history with raging psychopaths, anti-heroes and vigilante violence and I firmly believe in freedom of artistic expression, in our current culture, real-life mass shootings have become more and more prevalent.”
Perhaps the most insulting moment occurs when Joker is seen dancing, after having committed murder, while Gary Glitter’s song “Rock and Roll Part 2” plays in the background (a quick reminder: Glitter was a convicted criminal accused of attacking girls and of sexual abuse). An easy shock tactic? A careless choice by the director? You decide…
But ethics aside (and how can you really put them aside?), what is the artistic merit of the film? I have already commented on the plotless direction but to be fair I have to praise the great cinematography and editing (the subway scenes leave you breathless). Not to mention the very good representation of 80s Gotham City (well, how we imagine it to be from the comics) and the poignant soundtrack by Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir.
As for Phoenix’s performance make what you want out of it. On the one hand, we have the hysteric pleas of the fans who think his performance is worthy of an award at the Oscars show (as if this would be a huge achievement). On the other hand, we have some notable critics, questioning his tactics. In part, I do understand Stephanie Zacharek from the Times who acknowledges that Phoenix is a superb actor but not here (in her words “Phoenix is acting so hard you can feel the desperation throbbing in his veins.”) My opinion might sound harsh, but I felt that Phoenix was pulling all the drama school tricks to seem convincing. Having said that, I must emphasize that there are some elements in his acting that are very effective, making him suitable for the role: his half-mesmerizing, half-hypnotic gaze fits this Joker like a glove. But when it comes to employing a full body set of gestures and movements, and a curiously forced laughter, there is quite an imbalance of sorts.
In the end, I feel the need to applaud the cinematography but that on its own does not grant the film artistic merit (nowadays we see many music videos, for example, with stunning visuals – but is this art?) Had the film not taken itself so seriously, it would have been easier to stomach. But still, there are many social and ethical misgivings at hand that it is hard not to find fault in this half-self-parody, half-serious feature.