Joker ★★★★

There's something to be said for a rather skillful troll job, which is exactly what JOKER is. Having seen both this and KNIVES OUT - a movie that acts as a warm ideological blanket for its core audience - within the same week, it's become hilarious to watch the Extremely Online crowd gnash their teeth and tear at their clothes, as if in some sort of unspoken competition as to who can hate a movie more (the flip side being who can love Johnson's the most). "I despise you Lucrecia Martel!" they tweet at one of their sacred art house cows, thanks to her Venice Film Fest jury awarding the Golden Lion to Todd "Road Trip" Phillips' nihilistic comic book "origin story".

And honestly, why shouldn't they be angry? If KNIVES OUT is the comforting fire in the middle of a Trumpian shit storm, then JOKER is a bed of hot coals that they're being raked across, thanks to the film now being relegated to obligatory Awards Season viewing, courtesy of early fest praise. It's a movie that believes in nothing, Donny. It's a nihilist, rubbing your nose in miserableness with reckless abandon, simultaneously reminding the astute cinephile that neither TAXI DRIVER nor KING OF COMEDY (two superior films that this pompous Emperor has stitched its new clothes out of) probably couldn't be made today, thanks to studios being so beholden to existing IP. Instead, you get a piece of intense character drama, masquerading as the beginnings of a character whose inception has become a stomping ground for some of our greatest performers.

Make no mistake: JOKER is primarily a Joaquin Phoenix showcase, allowing the great actor to follow in the footsteps of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, transforming his body by starving himself into becoming an emaciated shadow of Paul Thomas Anderson's new best friend. Sure it's grueling, upsetting and unpleasant, as his Arthur Fleck is equal parts Bernie Goetz and Travis Bickle; a man whose every step pushes him toward violence, a serious neurological disorder causing Fleck to cackle like a madman whenever he becomes ostensibly overwhelmed with uncomfortable emotions. It's a grotesque nightmare menagerie of a character, and Phoenix contorts his form into circus freak acrobatics as he dances on a stage no one else can see, to a droning cello score that only the audience can hear. If he wins Best Actor, good for him. He's definitely going for it, right down to the tragic wire.

But the other big winner here is Phillips, who - and I admittedly can't believe I'm typing this - shows that he has a knack for incredible composition, evoking classic New York cinema beyond Scorsese (there's more than a little Friedkin and Lumet). Is he simply parroting without putting these images to good use? Possibly. Yet the technical acumen is undeniable, transforming Gotham into this urban netherworld that exists in a bizarro B-Side to the Big Apple's own history, only slightly heightened thanks to news reports declaring that the streets are not only littered with literal tons of waste (thanks to a garbagemen's union strike) but also "super rats" that we sadly never get to see. Phillips is brazenly announcing himself as more than just the "Hangover Guy" and, to be fair, he does so with rather admirable gusto.

Also admirable is JOKER's commitment to its own bit. This movie is going to make a fuckload of money and it is UNPLEASANT to sit through. From the DEATH WISH style train shooting, to the grim climax where our main clown announces that it's society's fault that he's turned out this way (woe be the downtrodden, mentally tortured white man), Phillips most certainly thinks he's making some sort of GRAND STATEMENT about class in the Trump Era. Remolding Thomas Wayne into a Donald clone who even may or may not have a past of sexual abuse is certainly a Choice with a Capital C. He's also contradicting himself at every turn by having Arthur practically become a walking avatar for the lonely, isolated gunman we too frequently read about in the papers anymore. There are no heroes in Phillips' worldview, only the haves, and those who they take from until they have nothing but bile and anger left to give back. "Nobody is civil anymore!" Arthur screams at one point, and the only reason he's not sending these thoughts up into the cloud is because JOKER takes place in 1981 (a mere three years before Goetz's own crimes left a pile of black men dead in NYC).

In short, if KNIVES OUT is spoon feeding morality back to Film Twitter, then JOKER is poking and prodding those same self-righteous dorks at every turn. Most have already turned on the movie, slinging eye rolling condescension and dismissing it because it's based on a comic book, or due to its rather obvious influences (I've already seen one tweet along the lines of "skip it and watch KING OF COMEDY at home like an adult"). But I'd argue that's what, in actuality, makes JOKER at least mildly subversive. Phillips somehow convinced a studio to let him use their all-valuable IP as a sort of blockbuster Trojan Horse to smuggle in nigh Breitbart level agitation (it also doesn't feel like a coincidence that he saved his "I won't make comedies anymore thanks to the SJWs" comments for the week of release). He got to both flex his filmmaking muscles and get a subset to care about his movies (myself included) that would've otherwise never given this goofy, edgelord weirdness the time of day otherwise. I hesitate to use something as corny as "the joke's on us" to close this thing out, but let's fucking face it: Todd Phillips won. At what expense (if any) is for further debate, but I ultimately respect his dipshit hustle.