This review contains spoilers.
Whatever I have to say about Joker, I have to start with this: It was a powerful movie.
When Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) kills talk-show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), it is a powerful scene. The brake lines are cut on his psyche as soon as he walks through the stage curtains, and the moment where he begins rambling and ranting about how society has failed him is filled with nervous, unpleasant energy. Arthur shooting Murray right in the head is deliciously transgressive in one lens, obvious in another, disturbing in the next. To watch an unhinged character, performed admirably by Phoenix, do something that shocking and poetic produces a powerful emotional reaction.
For me, the emotions produced are bewilderment, vertigo and a bit of disgust. So critiquing this movie is hard. It seems like every part of it is constructed to create as unpleasant a viewing experience as possible, and in that sense it succeeded. Thematic unpleasantness, like the constant antiseptic lighting, the dirty, garbage-stricken city and the omnipresent despair of poverty and mental illness all worked to set a consistent tone.
And the injection of superhero movie screenwriting — such as exaggerated, unrealistic dialogue and political movements used as wallpaper without any specificity or context to give them any teeth — makes the film’s attempts at serious drama cartoony. All of the important things it’s saying about mental health and gun violence are delivered through scenes like Murray’s death that go on far past when a regular person would say “Stop this now, we’re kicking you out of the studio.” Characters deliver their political manifestos and desires as though they are writing the first paragraph of an essay for their Political Science 101 class. They’re cartoon characters — literally characters lifted from the pages of comic books and cartoons — within a serious drama. The unsubtlety of the writing combines with the artsy direction to generate more nausea.
It felt like the goal of the film was to make me feel unpleasant, and it succeeded. So I can’t say I hated it and I can’t say I liked it.
There was plenty to appreciate in the movie, and if they’d either gone full comic-book style or full horror-drama style I probably would have enjoyed it far more. Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), the magnanimous ultra-rich father of Bruce Wayne who is pursuing a run for political office, is portrayed as a cold, pragmatic politician who openly despises the poor and unprivileged while arguing that only his wealth and power can save him. He is a comical stereotype of the neoliberal or neoconservative paternalistic government man, and so an easy target for the anarchist clown mobs that rise up in the wake of Arthur’s nihilistic murders.
It’s cool to get this angle on the Wayne family. This is probably how many of the people would see a politically dominant family like the (insert your presidential dynasty of choice here), and it adds richness to the Batman universe.
But Wayne is one or two degrees too obvious, his TV interviews are too dismissive of the poor — real world politicians and power mongers are experts at couching their policies and beliefs in feel-good language and layers of pleasantries. Yes, even popular leaders like Donald Trump who attain a reputation for straight talk do this, and it is a skill they hone because it is a skill of survival. Wayne simply would not survive politically in the real world.
So goes the Murray interview, in which the host inexplicably lets Arthur derail his show with admissions of murder. Or the confrontation between Arthur and Wayne in the bathroom, where Wayne gives the time of day to a man that practically assaulted his own child to tell him his mother is crazy and he is too. Why doesn’t Wayne call security and just have Arthur arrested? Why humor this clearly dangerous man at all? It all feels like writing with the goal of achieving certain expository moments in the plot, rather than writing in order to create convincing characters.
Characters built to be mouthpieces for philosophical or political ideas work great in pure comic book movies or games like Bioshock. I’m not trying to demean those works, but a film that tries to tell a more complicated story of mental illness and societal decay needs more complicated characters to tell it.
This tonal mish-mash also nauseates the film’s violence. I love violence in movies, including nihilistic, pointless, depressing violence. But I’m confused when a movie portrays what seems to be to be nihilistic violence, and then the people involved claim it has a deeper significance. I was similarly confused by Midsommar, which some interpreted as a breakup movie or even some kind of story of feminist triumph. I saw it only as a lurid, ultra violent romp in the woods devoid of greater meaning. Maybe Joker would have been easier to stomach had it been dropped the pretense of social commentary, and maybe I’m not a sophisticated enough viewer to grasp the deeper meanings.
But as beautiful as Joker was in moments, I walked out of the theater seeing it as a disturbing, unpleasant mess. The moments I enjoyed were washed out by the unfocused script.
Joker wasn’t so egregious that I’d boycott it in any way. But I have to say I hope it doesn’t do well, doesn’t make much money, and that DC decides not to continue making films like it. I think I would probably enjoy it a little more on another viewing, now that I know what the filmmakers were going for. But Joker just feels hollow, a fantasy superhero film that aspires to talk about deeper issues without committing to saying anything bold or interesting about them, beyond the fact that we live in a society.