This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Paul Zego’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
The parking lot was full of police cruisers. Two fat, serious looking cops were posted up on bar stools in the lobby, eyeing every person that entered the theater with suspicion. The tension was thick.
I have never felt less safe watching a movie in theaters. This, of course, had nothing to do with the hype around this film, and everything to do with the heavy, visual police presence at the theater in my little upper-middle class suburb. Before the movie even started, the silliness of the media's collective paranoia surrounding "Joker" set in. We moviegoers - just as fat and stupid as the flatfoots there to "protect us" - shuffled in under heavy guard. Was one of us an angry incel, waiting for his chance to shoot up a theater full of Friday night movie buffs? If we were, what were Officers Joe-Bob and Bill going to do about it? Add their indiscriminate bullets to the mix as we all stampeded for the exit?
In all honesty, it set the tone nicely.
"Joker" is nothing if not a deep character examination of one of America's favorite and most recognizable villains. I don't hold the character in as much esteem as some do (TJ, I'm looking at you), but I have always enjoyed the way that filmmakers use the blank slate of the Clown Prince of Crime.
This isn't the first time we've seen the Joker fleshed out with a back-story and it likely wont be the last. It is, however, the deepest dive into the psyche of the character I've yet seen. The results, for me, were at times spectacular and at times a bit disappointing.
To say that Joaquin Phoenix is "front and center" in this film would be a tragic understatement. In fact, one of my strongest criticisms of the film is that, for all intents and purposes, he's the only one in the movie. There isn't a single, solitary stand-out supporting performance in "Joker". To be honest, the movie doesn't NEED any, though I can't help but feel that there was some room for Joaquin to share a little slice the silver screen.
Then again, maybe that was the point. Arthur Fleck, our antihero and the titular Joker, is isolated. The few people that surround him just seem to melt into the grimy backdrop of Gotham City, a place overrun with crime, poverty and inequality. Though it is people that, quite literally, beat Arthur down, it's the city that holds the blame. He's one of the forgotten ones, underemployed, mentally ill and lacking any safety net.
Even though he's alone in this film, he's not alone in Gotham. When he kills a trio of rich douchebags on a subway train in a burst of violence I can only describe as "self-defense-ish", he inadvertently sets off a chain of events that shakes the city to it's core. A kind of clowny social movement springs up around his actions as protesters take to the streets in red noses, wigs and masks to protest the city's indifference.
Pundits, talking heads and political hacks all want to put a real-world face to the protest movement in this film. "It's like Occupy Wall Street / Antifa!" This is, of course, a mistake - and a desperate one at that. While I have no doubt that we are expected to draw parallels between "Joker" and our reality, pinning our own problems on this film just serves to cheapen its tone. This is Gotham, not middle America, and focusing our time weaving our own shitty politics into it ignores the point.
Arthur Fleck wants nothing to do with the movement. His personal tragedy isn't one that can be scribbled on a protester's cardboard sign, and his vendetta - as political as it may seem to the city at large - is decidedly apolitical. "My whole life I believed that my story was a tragedy - now I realize it's a fucking comedy!" He's not in this for social change, or to make a statement beyond - "I'm here. I exist."
THAT is what I took away from this film. One man's struggle to be accepted. One man's desperate attempt to know a little something about himself and share it with the world. To mire that in our current bullshit political climate is to bury the beauty of it under a mound of self-importance. Having a bunch of fucking pigs skulking around in the parking lot to "keep us safe" while we watch it is an attempt to paint our intentions onto the character to the detriment of understanding him.
The final minutes of Joker left a bit to be desired for me. After all the build up, Arthur's appearance on a local Gotham late show (think Letterman) seemed out-of-character. He's allowed too much room to pontificate, and rather than letting the violence do the talking for him, he muses about the nature of comedy and censorship. It felt, I dunno, "preachy" in a way that undermined the character a bit. It's a satisfying scene in the end, but I couldn't help but feel a bit deflated by the overwrought lead-up into it.
Minor quibbles aside, the movie is absolutely stunning in places. Joaquin Phoenix's heavily careworn face projects enough passion and heartbreak to fuel ten lesser movies with lesser messages. It's just a shame that the beauty of that performance is overshadowed by our own fear of one another - to the point of absolute absurdity. I hope I never again see fucking POLICE hanging around the lobby of a movie theater with no reason to be there other than to project the illusory feeling of "safety". To a person like me, they project the exact opposite.
See this movie. Talk about this movie. Just try to resist the background noise telling you that this film is about us, or our media, or the politicians in our world. Those things are empty in comparison to this film, and reality hasn't demonstrated a shred of the actual interest that would be necessary to draw the comparison.