So it’s been a while since Joker started steamrolling all over box offices around the world and by the gods, I know the world doesn’t need another Joker review, but I have some thoughts I’d like to offer for your perusal anyway. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll try to avoid spoilers as far as possible and will warn you as a major plot point comes up.
So of course everyone’s first question is: Is it good? And the answer is: Depends on what you want from a movie. It is certainly entertaining, albeit in a sick, squeamish way. The writing is hamfisted and predictable, the visuals a pastiche of well known elements from older, often better films, and the whole movie keeps losing itself in quoting its predecessors. But Joaquin Phoenix takes the material he is given and runs with it, molding and kneading the weak script into something haunting and beautiful, injecting a scary charisma and fascination into the protagonist even when director Todd Phillips is shamelessly ripping off both Taxi Driver and Silence of the Lambs in the same scene. He’s not Heath Ledger (and his Arthur Fleck is, in my personal opinion, not the Joker from Batman lore), but his performance surely is just as Oscar worthy, snapping from harmless, naive, probably slightly retarded party clown Arthur Fleck into a stone cold psycho killer at the blink of an eye.
It seems a lot of the success of Joker rides on the controversy surrounding it. And while none of the dire predictions have come to pass (no cinema shootings, no massive incel uprising, no spike in urban violence), one thing that stuck out recently is people crying foul at the movie’s use of Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll Part 2 in a key scene and frankly, that pisses me off so much I felt the need to actually write this sort-of review. Sure, apparently Glitter is a piece of shit for all we know. But first of all I actually believe in separating the work from the artist. So while I certainly wouldn’t invite that asshole Polanski to a dinner party, I can still enjoy his movies. But more to the point, I think the people criticizing Joker for its use of Rock and Roll Part 2 are missing the point. Even apart from the purely aesthetic – as the rhythm and the drive of the song perfectly fit the scene it introduces – there’s a deeper meaning here. This is a movie about a horribly fucked up human being doing horribly fucked up things. And it illustrates the moment when said human being stops struggling and finally, fully embraces what he has become, with the greatest hit of a man who fell from grace because the world found out he is a despicable piece of shit. In a movie that thrives on meta narrative, it doesn’t get much clearer than that. (There’s also the aspect of Rock and Roll Part 2 still being used to energize audiences at sports events and the obvious parallel that Arthur is hyping himself up for his greatest performance, but that pales in comparison.)
The other thing (besides Phoenix’s performance) that I really like about Joker is its ambiguity, which unfolds more and more over the course of the movie. Sure, there’s the painfully obvious twist that’s telegraphed from miles away which is then turned into a counter twist. But it really gets interesting when Arthur, after having what he calls „a bad day“, reflects on recent events and we learn that a significant part of them never really happened. It’s at this point that we fully realize we’re not just seeing the story unfold from Arthur’s point of view, but we are also trapped in his damaged mind. This comes to a climax at the end of the movie, when – slight spoiler ahead, as I describe a more or less nondescript part of the ending but not how the characters got there – Arthur is talking to a psychiatrist and we begin to wonder if any of the events we have seen throughout the movie actually came to pass. Maybe it was all just a figment of Arthur’s imagination, something he made up on the fly à la The Usual Suspects, or maybe it’s a psychotic delusion he’s been nurturing for years to make his life more bearable (which would certainly help gloss over the more egregiously stupid and unbelievable story beats in the script). Arthur is the quintessential unreliable narrator, and we leave the theater with more questions than we had going in. That mystery is the saving grace of what would otherwise have been a stellar performance caught in a less-than-mediocre movie.