Major spoilers for Joker ahead.
To say that Todd Phillips’ Joker has been attracting controversy since the film was first announced would be an understatement.
From the glorification of gun violence to the placement and treatment of people of color in the film, critics have had plenty to complain about since the trailer dropped. And while the racism and ableism that some have said the trailer suggested isn't necessarily as blatant in the film, it is an issue when you consider how and when the people of color show up in the film, as well as the implications of someone with mental health issues committing heinous acts of violence; people with mental health issues are often the most at risk of being victimized and exploited.
If we solely look at Joker as Joaquin Phoenix's masterclass in acting, then this piece of work is impeccable. Phoenix will likely get awards for the role and he absolutely deserves them. His ability to tap into the descent into madness is scary in itself. The film as a whole is a very bleak, depressing and distressing outlook on the current state of humanity. But aside from these problematic and inherently controversial aspects of the film, the huge problem with the film’s storytelling is that it insults its audience’s intelligence and toys with our perception, treating both as an afterthought.
Joker doesn’t have a plot. There isn’t a coherent sequence of events that the film presents. Instead, there's a deus ex machina to try and make its violent conclusion make sense.
Here’s the film in summation: Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is an outcast in society. Arthur Fleck has mental health challenges. No one cares about Arthur Fleck. So, Arthur Fleck becomes Joker and kills many people. That’s it. That’s the film. It’s something that could have been covered in 8-10 minutes instead of its two-hour runtime. But, Phillips’ Joker believes that it is something more important than that. It’s a movie that wants us to think that it is diving into some of the social and political issues that are currently running rampant in our country, but in actuality, it offers little and has nothing much to say.
It seems that a lot of things--from the problematic moment that shows Arthur being beaten up by a group of Latinx teens, to him learning Thomas Wayne (Batman's father) is his father, to the city’s social services department being shut down so he can’t get counseling or his medication--are contrived solely for the purpose of drawing sympathy and justifying Joker’s eventual spiral. The origin story, retconning Joker's background to be the illegitimate brother of Bruce Wayne's Batman (a child, presumably Bruce, briefly appears in the film) showed promise, but the film isn't concerned with this as a major plot point and uses it just as an easter egg.
Throughout these thrown together, disparate events, a single Black mother, Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz), appears in the film and acts as an ally to Fleck for most of the movie. After a chance meeting in their apartment building one day, they become friends and develop a romantic relationship. As we see Fleck dive deeper into mental instability, Sophie seems to have no issue with it. In fact, she loves it and agrees with everything that Joker is doing. When she notices that Arthur has been stalking her, she’s into it! The film’s only other major character is Murray Franklin, a late-night talk show host portrayed by Robert De Niro. Arthur is obsessed with the show and desperately wants to be a guest on it. It’s a character that eerily resembles De Niro’s character Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy (who was also a comedian with mental health issues)—especially when the audience realizes we’re being played.
During the weird relationship between Arthur and Sophie (a role in which Beetz is underutilized and has limited dialogue), viewers are likely confused as to why Sophie would be in this situation with Arthur. But as Arthur continues to unravel viewers are enlightened to what Joker actually is--a fantasy. By the film’s end, most of the scenes that have been presented to viewers are fabrications inside Arthur’s mind. Everything about Arthur and Sophie’s relationship is not real.
The unsettling relationship that viewers see develop between the two is likely Arthur stalking Sophie, until the moment she realizes that there is a random man obsessed with her. A prior version of the film’s script had Sophie as one of the Joker’s many victims, but thankfully, that does not appear in the final version.
So, what actually does happen in Joker? Who knows. It’s safe to assume that most of the film’s initial events: Arthur’s attack, him being fired, his discussions with his caseworker and more, are all attached to reality. But most of everything else? Probably fantasies. The tip of the iceberg is when Arthur, at point-blank range, shoots Murray Franklin after being a “guest” on his show. Like many of the other things in the film, the reality of this is unclear, with Arthur storming the set, armed with a weapon and opening fire, never actually being featured on the show.
This isn’t meant to be a takedown of using fantastical elements to tell a story. However, in Joker, none of this moves the film forward. None of this makes us think about the character or the film in a different light. What it does, however, is leave viewers confused as to what the actual point of the film is. While well-done fantasy films do trick the audience into believing events actually happened, they don’t then pull the rug out from under the audience and make them feel foolish for believing what the eyes saw. Viewers are smart enough to know that Arthur would have a diluted sense of reality but this should’ve been presented in a way that doesn't exploit this knowledge or the audience.
Fans of the movie will liken this distorted reality to classics like Taxi Driver and the aforementioned The King of Comedy. While there are similarities, neither of these classic films were made when mass shootings were rampant. From plot to execution, they are also just better-made films.
As the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado where a mass shooting took place during The Dark Knight Rises, refuses to play Joker, and critics deride its violence, Phillips has been all over the press, complaining about how his mega-successful film is being treated, lamenting “woke” culture and what he calls the demise of comedy. It got to the point where journalists were not even invited to cover the red carpet of the film's premiere. So, while Phoenix may be delivering an acting masterclass in Joker, it seems that his director is giving a masterclass on how to make people who were on the fence about seeing his controversial film make up their minds.
So, if that’s what Phillips wanted to say, he should have said it with his chest and just made his killer white man clown movie—without the convenient “it was all a dream!” ending—and called it a day, because Joker is not the cultural watershed moment that he thinks it is.
Joker hits theaters on October 3. The film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it has its North American premiere.
Photo: Warner Bros.
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