Where to even begin. I suppose with context.
I went in really, really wanting to like this. I’ve really felt like ever since ‘Joker‘ won the Venice Film Festival people have been out to take it down, as some kind of inner cinematic white-knighting, if I’m even allowed to say that. Some kind of spiritual reconciliation with one’s need to both punch up and down simultaneously. A conflict of online comedic film criticism that I’m sure a half-decent rendering of Arthur Fleck would find sympathy in. A half-decent rendering though, is very much, not what we have.
I think really the only nice things I have to say about it is that the actual shooting of the film, the cinematography, the direction, is really nice, experimental, and edgy. The sound mixing is superb. Phoenix’s performance is, as usual, entertainingly committed. I also like how much it really holds out on action scenes and does commit itself, in clothing at least, to being a character-driven drama. Even in my compliments though, they are where my critiques begin…
While Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is committed, it is committed to being garish, unrealistic, and annoying. It might not be, but it feels like an undirected performance. Phoenix let loose and run wild. Even as the opening handheld, atmospheric shots set the tone beautifully, everything about the screenplay immediately set my hackles on edge. I genuinely think that almost every screenplay choice, both micro, and macro was the wrong one. Every line was the exact thing that the character wouldn’t actually say, every story arc made no sense, and went the wrong way for the character, every interaction felt stilted, stunted, and awkward, and not in a good, edgy way. The story makes little to no sense just on a mechanical level, not that that’s something that’d be distracting me if I was AT ALL engaged in the movie.
This though, is only beginning to scratch the surface.
We have these technical elements, and there are many. We are yet to get into it’s deep-running philosophical problems. For a start, the film takes so much time to make you engage with someone who’s pretty explicitly in the text a sociopath, but cares not an iota for ANYONE who he hurts in his rampage of mayhem. Director, Todd Phillips has said you’re not meant to sympathise with Fleck as his crimes get more heinous, and I’m calling bullshit on that, and that’s because we never see the repercussions of his actions, see any sign of sympathy with his victims, and one more thing, which is really the deal-breaker. Towards the end of the film, de Niro’s character confronts Fleck on his crimes. This could, and should be, the moment of deconstruction, the moment where the film pulls the rug out from under your sympathy and confronts you with the horror you’ve been allowed to wish on. However, everything, and I mean everything, about the scene tells you to never even entertain de Niro’s character as having anything worthy of listening to. De Niro’s performance is one of the stiff authority figure, worthy of resentment, wooden, stiff in the body, and condescending. The editing always keeps us at a confrontational angle with de Niro, and at an embracing one with Phoenix, and the shot lengths allow us to sit with Phoenix, live with him, and only give lip service to the fact that de Niro has opened his mouth. The sound mixing keeps De Niro almost inaudible. The climactic moment, while terrifying, is also empowering to Fleck in a way that’s troubling, the filmmaking falls into a similar trap to ‘American History X‘ in granting it a kind of power over the audience, the act is threatening, but in my opinion, allowing it to be threatening and not pathetic gives the character too much legitimacy.
Now, there have been accusations of misogyny, which would be a lot easier to deny if the film had any affection or empathy for women in the utter slightest. Phoenix at one point sexually assaults a lady and it’s played for gags. There are two substantial female characters, one of whom is a practical personalitiless ghost, who in the narrative of the film is actively condemned for enabling abuse when she was a victim of the same abuse. This also plays into a general sense of demonisation of mental illness in the movie. The other female character is a literal blank slate, which the film later tries to excuse in a way that plays really explicitly LIKE an excuse to not bother to write the female character with any depth at all.
I do just want to say this character is introduced with the single most obnoxious ‘Taxi Driver‘ reference anyone has made ever.
I do want to say it has become apparent to me a lot of people didn’t see that excuse coming, despite the fact it’s really obvious, which should say something about how the film expects you to view female characters.
Now, early reviews of this film called it “incel friendly”, and well that makes a lot of sense. His turn as a character takes place defending a woman being sexually harassed, thinking himself the superior man who can beat down on some “bad guys”. The film plays up to this as the film goes on, eventually showing him becoming what he hates but never hinting that he previously would have hated that. He is the perennial, to-become-definitive, “nice guy”. Incel Narcasism is quite a thing huh.
On the note of the way in which the film invites you to view people, There is a moment in the film that involves a little person, and an elevated door lock, in which the audience laughed. This kind of made me lose my faith in humanity. Also, the overarching message of the movie is kind of that the people who want to make concrete class change at the moment are tantamount to naive would-be fascists led by a mentally ill murderer. So that is a totally nice, healthy, and constructive way to view the world and thing to say in your art. If anyone tries to tell me that’s reading into it, the film actively uses very loaded images, it actively calls to mind these things I’m saying and these things in real life that I’m referring to, and if you think that it isn’t you are just factually incorrect and I can think of no other way to put it. If you want to bring in films like ‘Fight Club‘ or ‘V for Vendetta‘ as comparison points. A) Those films showed, and bought these characters up on, the victims of their actions and the real, tangible lives they lead, in both films, at all points. B) Both films have really solid female characters that serve as really effective foils to the rampant male ego.
‘Joker‘ is really, really rubbish.