Todd Phillips has just released his first comic book movie: Joker, and it’s the hardest review I’ve had to review in my small capacity as an enthusiast film reviewer, for a couple of reasons. Discussing or explaining what makes the film special without delving into spoiler territory is nigh-on impossible. So be warned from this point forth there are spoilers involved.
In our reviews article, I said, and I stand by, how you read Joker will be hugely influenced by your own personal experiences, both in good ways and bad ways. Mental illness, traumatic experiences, the rising tide of socio-economic frustration, Joker isn’t afraid of pulling up a microscope to uncomfortable topics. It is, however, afraid of forming an opinion on them.
Joker is a perfect example of the unreliable narrator, but it takes this to extreme lengths. There is no clear message to take away from the movie because it’s hard to know at any point whether what you’re seeing is real or imagined. This is also, however, its USP and exactly what makes the experience of watching it interesting. It deals with difficult and dense themes, dancing around them in a villainous and unpleasant way without ever nailing it’s true colours to the wall.
The second reason that it was a difficult review is because of the nature of its subject material and its director, Todd Phillips. Todd has been doing the rounds in the press recently to drum up hype and support for his latest cinematic outing. Standard stuff for a movie of this size, but in addition to answering questions about Joker it turns out he’s quite outspoken on a number of politically charged topics. Topics which are not far away from Joker’s own wheelhouse.
Phillips has been going on the record to explain that he’s using Joker to sneak a “real movie” into to the superhero saturated Hollywood system. He’s also addressed his move away from comedy films (you would have previously known him for The Hangover franchise). He says this is because of the current social climate and how he believes it hard to be funny or daring in our current “woke” generation.
Separating one’s own politics, and the politics of its director, from Joker, makes it a slightly easier watch. Joker could be the story of society punching downwards on it’s most vulnerable. But it could also easily be the failed attempts of society to punch upwards and the sort of unpleasant characters that arise from feeling out of place in a changing world.
Either of these extremes is not exactly something to be cheering for. One turns a victim of mental health trauma into a comic book extremist, played all too charismatically by Phoenix. Where the other presents a maladjusted white dude imagining himself as, or actually becoming, a terrorist. Then almost justifies his actions by surrounding him with equally irredeemable circumstances, labelling those circumstances as “society” and shrugging it often whilst all the murders happen. None of this is to suggest that Todd Phillips intended either of these readings of the film, but it certainly does make me a little more uncomfortable with it receiving 8-minute standing ovations.
The beauty and depth of Joker are very much in the eye of the beholder, so even if the only message you take away from it is the basic: “Hey! societies bad man, we live in one of those, can you believe that?!” Well, it is still one of the messages that Joker lays out on its meta-textual buffet table for you to gorge on. But it’s a long table, with salt at one end, pepper at the other and everything in between being a varying shade of grey, it’s hard to know if one diet, in particular, is being catered for. Especially when the chef themselves seem to be lacking a little in taste.
If I had to draw my own personal conclusions out of Joker I would say this: the entire movie made me uncomfortable, and I think and hope that’s the point. Joker manages to be both a slate blank enough to encourage discussion and a film talented enough to nefariously dance around meaning. Not an easy balancing act for any film to do, I just hope that it’s what this movie does do, rather than what goes unsaid, that defines it.