This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Max’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Welp, I guess this movie is the real hot topic right now so I have to write an actual review...
Let's start with the good: all the technical aspects are here. I loved the use of a large format camera (specifically the ARRI ALEXA Mini LF) to encompass a wide field-of-view while also having that really nice, shallow depth of field. As my dear friend Joel pointed out, the film plays with DOF in some pretty interesting ways for a movie of the caliber of budget, appeal, etc. The color is also very nicely done; sure, the palettes themselves may not be the most original (we could keep up with the teal and orange meme if we wanted), but at least there is a palette, as opposed to some other popular superhero films.
Joaquin Phoenix is, as always, very good. Does that even need to be said at this point? It's Phoenix, of course he's great. I don't think he'll ever surpass his role in Brother Bear, or its sequels, Earthlings and Dominion, but I'd love to see him keep trying. I liked the idea with him dancing, but honestly it was more funny than impactful around the 5th time it happened. Joker's just vibin and people should leave him alone.
Lastly, the score... exists? I'm not quite sure whether I like it or not. On one hand, it's different than most superhero soundtracks. It actually tries to draw the audiences attention to itself, which is cool, but it felt more like the soundtrack for 12 Years a Slave than it did for its own material, and was a bit overbearing at points. At least it's not composed by fucking Hans Zimmer.
Alright, now that that's done with, I can get to what literally everybody else has been saying: Joker is a complete (heavy-handed) thematic mess. It feels like Todd Philips really wants the viewer to think that this movie has some kind of message, but even he isn't sure what that message is. It teeters between being sympathetic towards Arthur and indirectly condemning the lower class for starting a rebellion "led" by a man who has no idea what he's doing. The rich people are bad because they don't care about those socioeconomically below them (thanks for that incredibly subtle Modern Times scene, Todd), and the poor people are bad because they instantly turn into violent murderers when presented with a chance to stage an uprising.
See, what Philips doesn't seem to understand about Joker's inspiration, namely the transgressive American films of the '70s, especially Taxi Driver, is that there is a clear message, and you're not necessarily supposed to root for the protagonists. You are not supposed to identify with Travis Bickle. There are even undercurrents of the racial motifs found in Taxi Driver; it seems like most of the people who hurt Arthur aren't white: the kids who steal the sign at the beginning, his therapist (speaking of which, what was with her? The film seems to imply the cutting of her funding was a large reason for Arthur's rampage, but it was also made very clear that she wasn't helping to begin with), his imaginary girlfriend, etc. Perhaps these aren't the people that are directly responsible. They, too, are being screwed by a much wider system of oppression imposed by the upper-class (mostly white) people. This could have been a chance for some ACTUAL social commentary on how easily mislead some racists are by their legitimate oppressors, but no. Joker isn't interested in providing any real commentary, it's interested in recreating the aesthetic of an edgy, violent Martin Scorsese film without the substance or cultural context to back it up.
Another example that comes to mind when discussing transgressive cinema, and this may seem to come out of left field so please bear with me, is Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. This is another film that isn't particularly subtle in its themes or communication of those themes, but that's for a reason: it has an incredibly blunt, direct point to make about power hierarchies and the oppression of people under fascist ideologies. This is even more powerful under the context the film was made in, that being post-fascist-rule Italy. The themes in the film were (and still definitely are) incredibly relevant. Pasolini knew exactly what he wanted to say, whereas Philips doesn't seem to have a real message that he's trying to communicate.
And this is where my problem with Joker lies. It's so fucking open-ended that anybody could walk in and walk out with their views completely validated, regardless of what those views actually are. All the incel articles before the film even came out were kinda bullshit because Joker is ultimately a spineless exercise in recreating the aesthetics of better, bolder films. It's not "a rallying cry for incels", It's a rallying cry for everybody, yet nobody at the same time. Its marketing bathed itself in manufactured controversy, but for what? The final product is just so bland, but you know it's gonna win ALL the Oscars because it's a dark, gritty reinvention of a superhero (or villain, I guess) origin story.
This is a 0/10 Joker movie. It was a 10/10 Scooby-Doo movie, however, because of the slow-motion hallway chase at the very end.