Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix in a claustrophobic experience where you want to escape his miserable life but at the same time can’t wait to see what happens next.
I have been keeping a track of how people are reacting to this movie right from the standing ovation at Venice Film Festival, followed by TIFF and now its theatrical release. There are two interesting things that came out of people’s reactions. One was how Taxi Driver (1976) and King of Comedy (1983) were the sources of inspiration. And two, how this movie could be controversial because some might feel it glorified/condoned violence and would make us sympathetic for such characters.
Well, let’s start with the sources of inspiration. Thankfully I did my homework and watched both King of Comedy and Taxi Driver before watching this movie. And yes, the similarities are quite obvious but not to the point where it doesn’t feel like its own new thing. If anything with a character like The Joker you can push these source materials even further. And I am happy to say that is definitely the case with this movie. In contrast to Rupert Pupkin, he’s an actual failure of a standup comedian and is probably an even bigger sociopath than Travis Bickle. My only minor issue is the multiple visual nods to the Scorsese movies which almost seem like Todd Philips secretly trying to convey his admiration for the legendary director. Even if they don’t serve any real purpose in the narrative.
These occasional visual nods almost broke my immersion/disbelief in an otherwise compelling and convincing performance from Joaquin Phoenix. They reminded me I was watching a movie that was heavily drawing inspiration from another movie which is not something I want to experience when I am still physically in the theatre. Do you know what I mean?
In terms of the controversy, I don’t understand why this movie should be the scapegoat when a show like Mindhunter does the exact same thing and with real historical killers nonetheless. Heck take any movie that has had a well-written psychopath ever and almost every one of them has made us sympathize with him in some way. I guess with great popularity, comes great controversy. I personally feel this has more to do with something that America is uncomfortable with rather than something they think is actually harmful. It’s almost too reminiscent of horrors they have faced be it because of their gun laws or mental illness. And I do understand that, which is why I personally never loved Slumdog Millionaire. That movie reminds me of how poverty and excessive population have plagued our country for generations and that makes me extremely uncomfortable. But what do I know, I’m not an American and maybe I’m missing something?
It isn’t a flawless movie by any means. The narrative almost feels like it’s trying to give Arthur a bad time rather than depict how mental illness along with a terrible city like Gotham can make someone snap. Yes, it’s his state of mind that made him resort to violence whereas someone sane in similar circumstances would fall victim to depression or even suicide. But the movie never emphasizes that. I mean, would he have killed his mother and Randall if he was still on medication and meeting his psychiatrist regularly? I’m honestly not sure because his medication didn’t stop him from killing 3 Wayne Businessmen who were basically just bullies. We don’t even see a hint of withdrawal symptoms considering he’s a guy taking 7 medications a day. I just felt that the message was lost in the mix.
The movie also misses out on showing us how pathetic Gotham really was. If a controversial statement by Thomas Wayne and a questionable triple homicide was all it took to ignite a fire among people, then Gotham really must be on the brink of collapse. But we never get a sense of that apart from Arthur saying, “It’s getting crazier out there.” A deep dive in Gotham and some world building would have even subdued the controversies, with people realizing a character like The Joker would only be possible in a terrible city like Gotham.
There are a lot of plot conveniences that need to occur in order to get the Joker we want. Arthur for some reason carries a gun to a children’s ward in a hospital even though it was he who suggested he shouldn’t have one in the first place. He’s able to smuggle the gun inside the studio and on stage while the Murray Franklin show is being recorded. And Thomas Wayne has to say something very controversial, otherwise, the movie just won’t work.
But I’ve always felt that plot conveniences are tolerable if the resulting product is spectacular. And for the most part, Joker is spectacular. Arthur Fleck’s damaged personality and his painful laughter have seeped deep into my brain and I don’t think I will forget it anytime soon. The cinematography and music are consistent with the tone of the film. Todd Philips’ direction even though heavily inspired is executed brilliantly. There is a claustrophobic feeling to the film where you want to escape this miserable life of his but at the same time want to figure out what happens next. And honestly, what more can you ask from a Joker origin movie.
What I am happy about more than anything is that this movie could be a start to something truly epic. WB and DC needed to first put their toes in the water and test this out with audiences. This is why the movie is just 2hrs long, doesn’t delve too deep with its world and is very straight forward with its plot twists. But the fact that we got a standalone character study in a superhero universe is just mind-boggling. And hopefully the movie will do well commercially and studios will realize people actually appreciate these kinds of movies. Genre breaking movies like this will expose general audiences to other niche and non-traditional forms of cinema.