Let’s not mince words here: Joker is a dark, sinister movie, rife with cynical proclamations about society and the current dystopian state of things.
By now you’ve most likely read some reviews comparing Joker‘s subject matter to the “incel” movement. Once this idea is planted in the viewer’s mind, it’s nearly impossible to separate the two — there are similarities that are tough to deny: This movie’s Joker (Joaquin Phoenix), Arthur Fleck, lives with his mother as an adult man, has difficulty keeping a job and interacting with people, doesn’t have a girlfriend or partner and is generally downtrodden. Everyone and everything is against him, or so it seems.
As the movie goes on and more and more terrible things happen to Fleck, he degenerates into raving, murderous madness, a.k.a. the Joker we know from comics and previous movies.
Are you saying that Fleck is an incel?
Not explicitly, but it’s hard not to think so in today’s current climate. It’s actually baffling that director Todd Phillips didn’t pick up on those undertones while shooting and work to rectify it. Phillips really wants you to empathize with Fleck, to be on his side as he starts killing people he believes wronged him. The laundry list of horrible experiences that befalls Fleck is a lot for anybody, but at no point is it ever justifiable to go kill someone who did you wrong. Joker doesn’t convey that message; instead it says, in a number of ways, that we should support and rally behind this damaged, troubled man.
Why shouldn’t we feel sympathy for a character like this?
To a point it feels possible, mostly at the beginning of the movie when we’re just getting to know Fleck. Phillips also tries to nudge us in that direction by continually bringing up Fleck’s mental illness. What’s particularly sinister about this aspect is that mental illness is legitimately difficult to live with, especially to the degree Fleck suffers. To use it as justification for his heinous acts is next-level, but that happens here. It’s also compounded by the abuse Fleck endured throughout his childhood, another factor continually highlighted as if it rationalizes murder.
How is Phoenix in the role?
As with most of his big character roles, Phoenix is astounding in the part. He famously lost 52 pounds for the role, and the repeated shots of his bony spine and sinewy arms drive the point home. He throws his entire self into it, and it’s intense throughout. His laughter is at once unsettling and surprisingly contagious: there were nervous giggles in the theatre whenever he laughed. Expect an Oscar nomination, but not a win — this movie’s reputation might hinder his chances.
Is there anything redeeming about Joker?
Aside from Phoenix’s acting, there are some pretty amazing shots. Gotham (New York City) is its own character (as always), and its grittiness lends itself to the movie’s overall feeling. Phoenix’s intensity owns the camera, and there is much beauty in his character’s ugliness. Music choices are grating and often on-the-nose, but thankfully that only happens a handful of times. To its credit, Joker never feels long or bloated, a relief considering the endless runtimes of most superhero movies.
So what’s the bottom line?
There’s a good movie nestled somewhere inside Joker, but unfortunately it’s obscured by its own heaviness. Whatever message it hoped to convey — if there is a message to it at all — is muddled by the seriousness of the film’s subject matter. As made clear through horrific events over the last several years, we can’t afford to be cavalier about marginalized individuals on the fringe. They need help, not a character portrait, and they most certainly don’t need their actions rationalized or justified.
‘Joker’ is now playing in theatres across Canada.