Here's a list of things I didn't do after watching Joker:
1. Buy a gun.
2. Commit a mass shooting.
3. Dress up like a clown and bring a .35 to a Children's hospital.
I know - you are shocked. How could this be? After all, isn't Joker's purpose of glorifying the violence of deranged and disaffected weak men? Unless you're a CNN correspondent or the Opinions editor of the New York Times, you'd have to be mentally handicapped yourself to believe such myths. Unfortunately, many media outlets have been parroting versions of this "movie equals violence" myth since DC announced the film in early 2019.
Let's set the record straight – Joker is a masterpiece. This provocative and profoundly unsettling movie digs a trench between the glossy pages of comic book fiction and the chaotic realities of mental illness. Though Joker, at times, stumbles over its plot, it successfully weaves together Batman lore, new information, and stunning cinematic visuals to construct an entirely new feeling within a long depleted genre.
Comic book nerds, Christopher Nolan disciples, and Heath Ledger idolizers had every right to be skeptical when Todd Phillips proclaimed he was going to take a stab at this iconic villain. After all, Ledger's performance, his sudden death, and The Dark Knight's pervasive success solidified his Joker as perhaps the most excellent comic book portrayal ever. Watching Joker, one gets the sense that Todd Phillips appreciated this hurdle and decided to avoid duplication altogether. His film, therefore, seems at home on the screen as a Scorsese inspired character study of what happens when the wrong things keep happening to the wrong people.
Joker may not be the greatest movie of the year, but it deserves recognition for the bravery of its concept. Yes, Joker does, at times, feel like a compilation of Martin Scorsese's greatest hits. Todd Phillips constant references gives the film a sense of being too full of itself. These moments where the action seems to halt just to bathe in the film’s brave concept seem wholly unnecessary and ultimately distracting. As you exit the theater, however, it is the last thing on your mind. Also, Scorsese’s influence does support the theory that his inclusion as an executive producer was to avoid a plagiarism suit. It must be argued, however, that imitating greatness does not always degrade both the imitated artist and the novice at work. In Joker, the nods from Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, seems to categorize Joker as a desperately needed intense character study of a lonely individual – the type of film Hollywood abandoned after the 70s.
The art direction of Joker deserves special recognition. Just as its protagonist buckles from living a disturbed life in a dying city, Joker exudes a sense of depletion and of what appears to be the late '70s or early '80s is closer to hell than New York City. The resolute overcast sky reflects a sense that no one is looking down on the hell that unfolds on the streets below. The deep blues, sweet sewage greens, and splattered reds of the composition invite the audience to look deeper as if a message may appear in the headlights of a cop car or on slime dripping off a dumpster.
Similarly, the score of Hildur Guðnadóttir infuses the movie with a sense of longing and sorrow it desperately needs. Without this music, Joaquin Phoenix's portrayal would not provide any handles upon which the audience could take hold. Instead, this score allows him to express moments of peace, gratitude, and satisfaction – regardless of how deranged the preceding scene. Guðnadóttir, who also wrote the score for HBO's Chernobyl, was vital to the success of this movie.
In Joker, Joaquin Phoenix proved yet again that he deserves to hold the mantle of the greatest working actor in the prime of his capabilities. The Joker's portrayal tends to reflect the fears and urges of its era. Cesar Romero committed various pranks and mischief typical of an ill-informed, cold war era CIA. Jack Nicholson embodied the horrors of a crime-ridden 90s, allowing him to kill Bruce Wayne's parents and attempt to gas all of the citizens in Tim Burton's Gotham. Finally, Heath Ledger's unhinged terrorist aura mirrored the ever-present fears of a terrorist with loyalty to chaos rather than a religion. Though much of the press has continued this pattern in characterizing Phoenix's performance, this Joker feels different. Yes, one could undoubtedly attribute elements of his character's actions to the loner violence that populates the headlines so frequently. A more profound truth, however, is being reflected about which no one wants to talk. Joaquin Phoenix's Joker reveals the unhinged perils of mental illness. His painful balance of nerves, determination, and insecurities portrays Joker as a neglected sufferer rather than a blood thirsty villain. The laugh deserves specific attention as each “ha” seemed to curdle out from his stomach like some sort of acid reflux. Laughter is not something this Joker relishes. It is painful, embarrassing, and acts as a public display that he’s acknowledging what’s going on around him and contributing to the chaos. Phoenix's weight loss couples with the immediacy of his behavior to construct a deeply unsettling figure of a man who is lost in Gotham's aura. Put clown makeup on that man and give him a gun and… well… what do you expect?
Joker's most significant achievement may be the reaction it has incited from the news. No, this movie won't get the recognition from the press that it deserves. It probably won't win any major awards come awards system. That would require that such organizations have a spine. Instead, these outlets will shrink beneath their keyboards, content to ridicule an artistic endeavor that proved their jobs useless. When the media can't attract it's audience, it flails desperately like a toddler trying to gain attention. When an audience grows tired of the media, it turns to artists for a rope of guidance. Joker reveals yet again how valuable movies can be when they tread the line between sensationalism and truth. If Joker proves anything, it may be this - many films can provoke, few can tap into the fears of a culture and a nation.