Can a movie be good and problematic at the same time?
Todd Phillips’ Joker, a stripped-down, visceral take on the infamous comic book villain, certainly seems primed to answer the question. Fortune favors the bold, literally. This aggressive pop-culture installment is headed for a box office haul and the laud that accompanies potentially record-breaking numbers.
But at what cost?
The Joker, as a character, is an agent of chaos; the embodiment of anarchy, and leader to dangerous outcasts. Much of the character’s origin rests in the “broken mind”. A man who understands reality differently; whose overall mental health is suspect. Though its best iterations typically carried more mystery and vague details surrounding his origin. This character is too broad, sinister, and archaic to fit within the confines of a clearly defined backstory.
In 2019, the biggest surprise Joker packs aren’t the few moments of unhinged violence, nor the paper-thin society indicting monologue the leading man delivers. It’s flat out stunning that we are apparently still painting with the broad strokes of straw man mental illness stereotype. Joker removes any ounce of nuance, humanity, or potential for actual commentary on what it means to carry the baggage of mental illness; to seek and desire stability; to explore a system that aims to help; to be uniquely human whether high functioning or not; to discover identity through the thick of nuanced struggle. Instead, it hearkens back to the gaslighting tropes of lazy narrative convention; i.e. individuals with mental illness are the rockstar serial killers and deeply dangerous in the most anecdotal sense.
“But it’s the Joker!” I get it. The concept of mental instability as an imperative ingredient to the Joker’s existence is not lost on me. Yet in the thick of a more in-tune and sensitive entertainment culture—that advocates for better representation—is this feeble pathway really the best, most creative route? There are countless ways of which the narrative could have handled this key component with better understanding, more empathy, and truthful commentary while still unveiling the sinister nature of the Joker.
What we’ve been given, however, is a messiah of anarchy whose “true” identity was not discovered until the taste of murderous blood was found; culminating in a rockstar treatment that brought drops of iconic, power anthems and manipulative “pump-up” energy. Joker’s exploration isn’t one of a white-knuckled struggle leading to eventual discovery of intoxicating power and position proving. That would have been understandable.
Phillips paints a portrait of a character that has “always been crazy”; and it’s not a question of what path will he choose, but rather an assumed inevitability. This mentally imbalanced individual has no choice but to become the murderous, anarchic nightmare we all know. And there’s certainly little in the way of system blaming. The slow-fade into madness, a common ingredient to any great thriller, barely exists at all. Again, this is a film that has the opportunity to present humane nuance around an overly sensitive topic and casts it all aside in the name of forced-hand storytelling.
The convenient approach ironically weakens the thematic effect of the whole film. A notable example is right after the first murderous exchange on the subway; Arthur flees but stops in a public restroom to “feel his true self” for the first time, and breaks out into a haunting, trance-like dance. This moment could’ve have been a big emotional payoff; a seminal moment of discovery … but instead, fell flat even alienating to a point of feeling unearned.
Phillips wants Joker to be grounded in reality. It feels impossible to watch the film and not get a keen sense that the whole experience is meant to feel more realistic than its comic book flick counterparts. But he’s done so by removing any semblance empathy from the equation. What the movie aims to accomplish leaves me with a sinking feeling that it hits one of two conclusions:
- Either it’s out of touch with the subject matter.
- Or, it’s unapologetically exactly what it set out to be, and the “sensitive/better representation culture” be damned.
Neither represent the best version of what this film could have been.
Is there smoke to this gaslit fire? The influx of well-versed critics taking issue with this film—or simply deeming it unimpressive—are in large part from women and people of color. That certainly feels like a trend worth noticing, even of which to especially listen. And so, we find the resulting conversation hinting towards, “this may be problematic”.
Joker has crossed over from mere popcorn entertainment and ventured into the arena of prestige, message-fueled filmmaking. Whether that proves a fair treatment may be open to interpretation; although through Todd Phillips’ comments, it certainly feels as purposeful.
Is it a comic book movie? Yes. But limiting it to a lone, simplistic label does a disservice to both the film itself as well as fascinating conversation it has cultivated. This movie serves a visceral exploration of nihilistic humanity that transcends simple escapism. Which makes the comic inspired component all the more complicated. Joker is the antithetical unicorn. For scope and a not-so-fantastical character study centered on an otherwise fantastical character, the film achieves something most titles never do—but somehow still misses the point; and, dare I say, regresses the conversation of advocacy, effective societal commentary, and mental health awareness.
Phillips seems overly protective (per his polarizing comments) of this particular work which is striking when considering the lack original vision he brought to the project. Which in and of itself is a bit surprising. The Hangover was innovative and expertly crafted; Old School birthed a brief renaissance of 2000’s studio comedy that felt gloriously low-brow; of course the fun genre-bending War Dogs is as incredibly re-watchable as it is important in statement. He’s clearly talented. So why so serious with this title, at this time, that appears to be lacking a notable innovative flair?
When I think of edgy, tone-setting filmmakers with something to say, my mind goes to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing; to Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ; to Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here; the Wachowski sisters’ The Matrix; Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia; John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood; Robert Eggers’ The VVitch; Ari Aster’s Midsommar; Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry; Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator; Rian Johnson’s Brick; and others. Innovative visionaries that brought sensitive subject matter to the forefront in stunning fashion. Understanding difficult truth and visceral realities are not a pallet cleanser but a necessary entree. They champion true representation and emotional narrative in deliciously unsettling ways. Some even craft a unique visual language of sorts; truly owning the chosen medium and shifting the paradigms of storytelling.
Now, we have seen this before …
The comic book arena has already been gifted an edgy, innovative take on this character. The Dark Knight set a new standard when it comes to breaking-down the barriers of traditional storytelling, capturing the zeitgeist, and establishing an appropriately gripping way to capture sensitive subject matter. We don’t just declare The Dark Knight to be the best Batman movie, or even the best snapshot of the titular villain; many place it on the short-list of the 21st Century’s best movies. This comic book movie transcended the medium and became not just a thing of the moment, but an era defining achievement, and did so without gaslighting individuals directly connected to the sensitive subject matter. The film gave us just enough of the “edginess” to be compelling but understood less is more; that constraint is a masterful skill as opposed to releasing the fire hose.
Tonally, these two films present an interesting case study. My hunch is they’ll be inextricably linked. Each is a clear play at elevating the genre and arena of which they both represent; they reach for the level of humanistic, award-worthy prestige. Those hopes are as overt as the clown make-up their key characters employ.
Intentional as his choices clearly are, Phillips seems to have opted for the route of convenient familiarity in capturing Joker. It feels as though the boundaries challenged weren’t so much motivated by the desire to say something worthwhile, but rather a pursuit of simply crafting something “edgy” for its own sake. Certainly not an uncommon pathway for comic book inspired cinema, but one that doesn’t quite add up when the film is so clearly fascinated by being taken seriously.
But it’s not all bad.
Joker is one of the year’s most visually compelling pieces. Lawrence Sher’s cinematography is brilliantly and subtly immersive. A visual feast of intimate visualization capturing a world that felt both unsettling of which to dwell but I never wanted to leave. From a purely visual standpoint, I could’ve lived in this movie all day.
To no one’s surprise, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is a staggering tour de force. The man goes hard in the way that unique way only he accomplishes. Is it his career-defining turn? Not by a long shot, but it’s enveloping and visceral. That said, if this is what ultimately lands him an Oscar it’ll feel oddly reminiscent of Scorsese’s belated win. No one doubts the talent deserves the hardware, but winning for that particular title feels … off.
Even among the glaring shortcomings, Joker boasts strong components that make the movie watching experience mostly worthwhile.
Polarizing conclusions aside, it’s not the place for criticism to censor art—quite the opposite. But when an entity central to the mainstream conversation clearly wants to be taken seriously; attempts to say something; and elicits emotional reactions to such pronounced variety it, then, becomes about assessing its placement among the artistic culture. How could it not? Nay, it is not so much a question of, “did I like the film?” but rather a question of whether or not the film accomplishes that which it set out to do.
Outside of the obvious money-hungry and pop-culture-fueled motivations, I think it fair to posit: In the fashion of which it was told; magnifying the subjects it chose; and the blatant carbon-copy mechanics it boasted, was this movie the best it could have been?
Seems like a fair question.
Or, perhaps I’m giving Joker too much power. No one doubts that art’s prime motive is to spark emotion; a response. If the film were limited to that one broad measurable, we’d say, “Mission accomplished, Mr. Phillips!” I’d only add that one cannot place nihilistic anarchy, straw man tropes, and feeble political messaging in the spotlight and color oneself surprised when the reaction is a call for greater conversation.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the joke is on me. Maybe I take it too seriously expecting a certain standard when it comes to gaslighting the subject mental states and personality disorders. Maybe I’m just part of “outrage culture”. But if Phillips wants to be a “visionary auteur”, it may be a good form to avoid blatant mimicry in the future. Pouring that level of passion into a blockbuster movie that unapologetically blows past homage-inspired storytelling, opting instead for copying masterful filmmakers takes guts. If that’s the endgame, then again I say, “Mission accomplished, Mr. Phillips!”
Filmmaking finds its meaning in its subjectivity. That’s the beauty of entertainment, art, fandom, and—yes—criticism. Like it or not, Joker is part of the conversation. It was always going to be.
Gas has been poured no the fire in the way of impeccable cinematography, an unreal leading performance, and unimaginative storytelling. Does that make for a good movie or a problematic one?