The purpose of Joker is to be a Great Film; entertainment is secondary. However, it is not a Great Film. It barely even feels like a film. It feels like television. Bad television, albeit bad premium television. You know the kind. Any given Showtime show that stretches one episode of story into a season, or one of those weird Netflix things that horribly Photoshops its actors into the key art.
Joker, is that you?
I say this in part because it’s how I feel. But more urgently, it’s probably the only way to injure a movie like this. It’s not the worst I’ve seen this year. Ready or Not made me far angrier, but it’s a relatively independent low-budget horror movie just trying to have a good time. In both cases, the intent is on the screen. Because there’s hardly any forward motion or action undertaken by the central character in Joker’s character study, I’m left to think the intent driving the film is simply to be.
The Joker is an Oscar-winning role, in a league with Hannibal Lecter more so than Ares or Enchantress and other contemporaries. Of course there will be a Batman vs. Superman movie. Of course there will be a Joker movie. Who could predict when, but it would probably be the year that a comic book movie became the most successful film in history. Superheroes are the modern lingua franca, with a diversity of expressions and takes. Joker exists to represent the dark corners, and to ignore Logan.
The director, following a big win at the Venice Film Festival, took to defending his film with the flailing dignity of Dwight defending Michael, excusing its existence rather than insisting on it. From the man himself: “I literally described to Joaquin at one point in those three months as like, ‘Look at this as a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film’. It wasn’t, ‘We want to glorify this behavior.’ It was literally like ‘Let’s make a real movie with a real budget and we’ll call it f–ing Joker’. That’s what it was.”
Within the first five minutes of this real movie, I had that horrible realization that I was gonna be here for the next two hours. It wasn’t anything offensive to my sensibilities or too gruesome (neither of which I expected), but languid. The pacing is evident from the start. Every scene is too long and too dull. While it’s not a stretch to compare Joker thematically to Breaking Bad, structurally, they couldn’t be more distant. Walter White’s transformation into a monster is ultimately repellent in its victory (he sure kills those Nazis and gets revenge against his former employers and gives his immense fortune to his kids), but it’s expressed extremely interestingly throughout. The show provided countless instances of indelible imagery, whether it’s Walt’s very first kill with the bike lock or his last with the M60 in the trunk. And along the way, we saw a suicide bomb wheelchair which shaved off half a face, we saw an assassin use balloons to cut the power to a building, we saw two mostly-silent hit men from Mexico (who didn’t amount to much), and a lot of this iconic imagery was delivered with tightly-wound suspense.
For me, maybe the most memorable image in Joker was Arthur (the Joker) dropping a gun in the children’s ward of the hospital, which took me back to that moment in the season four finale of Breaking Bad where Walt ironically chastises Jesse for bringing a bomb to the hospital. Both are funny, but one comes about eight years later.
Take a look at the scene on the train. Arthur is sitting there in his clown getup, having just been fired from his job for a number of reasons (bringing a gun to a hospital, being a freak, etc.) and three young rich guys get on the train and start harassing a woman. My sixth sense tells me there’s tension building here, somewhere in the scene. Maybe it’s like a scavenger hunt. I know from the trailer that these guys eventually turn their attention to Arthur, and he ends up on the floor being beaten. That’s what happens next, because he compulsively laughs (a symptom of his vague “mental illness”). So the bullies start to beat him up, and then he shoots them all dead.
Now, this took me by surprise, because there was no build-up. I knew he had a gun on him, but not that he’d use it (he fires seven shots before running out of ammo — he must have demonstrated to the audience his proficiency with the gun when loading it between this scene and the “old war movie” scene). It felt somewhat cathartic, because bullying in this manner speaks to us in film language as “okay to die.” And because this movie is all about speaking so enthusiastically in the tongue of film language, like an American fresh back from a European vacation, I felt my reaction was appropriate: Neat!
But what about the phantom tension? This is a beat of the story that I’m sure traces back to the first draft of the script, and it’s expressed with no direction whatsoever. It just happens. Was it supposed to be suspenseful? And when the guys die, am I supposed to feel good or bad? Broadly speaking, how am I supposed to feel about the Joker? “Not at all,” is probably the answer, because it’s not a movie about statements or politics or emotions. The Joker simply is, and so, too, is Joker.
Writing, or rather, composing a critique of Joker is partaking in what by now feels like an ancient tradition, as handed down by the cinephilic elite. The task is holy, and yet ever competitive. What can I say that hasn’t already been said? For me personally, how do I navigate either political pigeonhole and rise above the expectation I’ve walked away with a Liberal Take? Extending that, how do I convince myself that the viewing was unbiased? Well, that’s easy. The movie lands with the dull thud of a sack of potatoes, though that certainly grants it more heft than evident in its lugubrious two hours.
But speaking of lugubrious, and other five dollars words, that was pretty much my first impression of Joker: the next movie to bring out the pure white insufferable in film critics. Usually, it’s Tarantino. Every year we get an exciting Django Unchained or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, male critics relish the opportunity. They lean back and crack their knuckles, taking advantage of these movies’ Big Important imagery and themes as well as their utter vapidness to wax philosophical and hyperbolic, delighting before the ultimate blank canvas. Joker has Big Important imagery and themes, too: mental illness, socioeconomic inequality, urban violence, civil unrest, matricide, child abuse, dissociation, and yet approaches all of them with, as already mentioned, its flaccid pretext, which is in turn complemented by its twisted worldview.
The director is charged with architecting spaces where the central character feels out of place, and yet, Arthur is rarely shown entering rooms, observing the patterns of normative behaviors, and frustrating in his failure to interface with them. Instead, he’s told that he’s a freak, he’s given up on by social services, and he’s made fun of by a national audience. It feels unfair, but in the mold of a Larry David show: the world is incompatible because everyone else sucks. Yes, Arthur has his unidentified problems, but if the world wasn’t so filled with indifferent black people, maybe there’d be a place for… who again?
I say “twisted worldview” not to reflect the grimdark aspirations, but to theorize that the director has never felt out of place anywhere in his life. Of course, that’s impossible, but it’s the impression he gives with this movie. And it’s not to say you have to feel that way in order to make a movie about it, but it might’ve helped. The first act of the movie was giving me severe Nightcrawler vibes, a movie so intense I had to turn it off. In that movie, the character pushes into spaces where he’s unwelcome, and almost by force, I am reminded of myself, failing the social rituals, buzzingly psychic with others’ disparaging thoughts. Joker never really gets there. I was dreading the scene where he performs standup, because there’s almost nothing more excruciating than bombing a set. To my relief and then confusion, this was no Kramer at the Laugh Factory. The scene chooses to pull an unreliable narrator escape, seeing fit to tease out the details only afterward. A movie about nothing is trickier then to pull off. It must suggest it’s about something, and then undercut every potentially meaningful instance both purposely and accidentally.
Film criticism like this is about triumph, that I wasn’t scared by this horror movie, and therefore, I’m better than it. I didn’t want to end up here, challenging Joker’s darkness, because I don’t care about triumph and yet cannot prove that. I prefer to like movies, and while it’s somewhat cathartic to gin up all my pretentiousness to wax philosophical and hyperbolic, shaking you by lapels which deny I studied film in college, I’d just rather have enjoyed it. But there was nothing there to enjoy. It’s a movie constructed not of film conventions which might provide bulk or content, but the barely reanimated bones of a film tradition we hold up as important because we never had a frame of reference.
In the end, we can proudly say that Joker is an audacious and daring film about mental illness, socioeconomic inequality, urban violence, civil unrest, matricide, child abuse, and dissociation, as if by relaying that specious information, we can ourselves prove to be about those things, too: mature and real. I don’t know if anyone’s called the movie “daring,” but it is such the opposite I hazard to say so, because then it’s just like we’re doing rubber and glue. It takes a template proven to be successful in the past and recreates it with no spark in its form, no thesis in its morals or philosophy, leaving one to remember that Hustlers was not so long ago, and actually was different and unexpected. What does Joker dare to do? It dares to exist. Aren’t you shocked? How dare a film like Joker exist? I demand it be censored! It’s so raw, so new and unexpected, I simply don’t like how it dares to exist!
As a note, I mentioned I didn’t expect to be offended by Joker and wasn’t, and I see this idea expressed frequently by minorities. It’s not bad to be offended by things, it just happens. As such, it doesn’t make us stronger to emphasize when we’re not offended by things.
Go see Hustlers if you haven’t.