“Joker” is thought-provoking chaos

Photo by Niko Tavernise, Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.

TMN film critic Gordon McPherson gives “Joker” 4.5/5 angry faces

Todd Phillips’ masterful “Joker” is a deep dive into the dark recesses of a damaged mind and a society on the verge of violent civil conflict.

While I can understand the criticisms many have with the film, as well as the controversy it has stirred up since its release, “Joker” remains magnificently compelling throughout.

Should you trust the opinion of your friendly neighborhood movie reviewer? Yes, you most assuredly should. Ignore the haters.

“Joker” stars a sublime Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a failed clown and comedian in 1980s Gotham City with severe depression and a condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably when he’s upset. He also lives in a decrepit apartment with his delusional mother, barely sustaining the will to live day by day. As tensions in Gotham City continue to escalate between the rich and the poor, Fleck begins a downward spiral into violence and brutal revenge against authority figures — and Gotham City itself — that wronged him throughout his life. Thus, Batman’s arch nemesis is born. Bucketloads of unwarranted, woke criticism follow suit.

Of course, Phoenix’s performance remains the central reason to watch “Joker.” Everyone who sees the film can objectively agree that this is an Oscar-calibur performance on par with Heath Ledger’s portrayal in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.”

Which is the better Joker, Ledger or Phoenix, readers might wonder? Neither. Both actors tackle different interpretations of the character. Ledger’s Joker is basked in mystery, while this film presents the character’s rise to malevolent prominence in blunt, heavy-handed detail.

Phoenix — with a spindly, Christian Bale “Machinist”-esque physique — commands his every scene with a disturbingly perfect mixture of sadness, despondence and repressed rage.

In a brilliant decision by Phillips, Fleck also contends with a mental condition that prompts uncontrollable, physically painful laughter, which Phoenix fully embraces. 

Indeed, “Joker” depicts the suffering Fleck faces on a regular basis, primarily because of his mental illnesses. He desperately wants to fit in, but Gotham City resists his every effort toward self-advancement, leaving him broken, abused and volatile.

“Joker” immerses viewers into Fleck’s psychology, often blurring the line between reality and Fleck’s imagined reality in several sequences that, while somewhat predictable, attempt to subvert viewers’ expectations.

The controversy surrounding the film, mainly relating to whether it condones violence and makes viewers sympathize with a mass murderer, is, frankly, overblown.

Depiction of harsh subject matter does not equal endorsement. While “Joker” remains an uncomfortable watch from beginning to end, the film realizes the importance of understanding the motivation behind people like Fleck and how that appreciation should not necessarily translate to sympathy. 

Through this understanding, Phillips invites viewers to consider how they fit into the society that created Joker, and what they will do to fight injustice in the real world.

Gotham City, while not particularly well-developed, shares similarities with contemporary America in regard to political division and oppression of minorities.

The dialogue in “Joker” is, admittedly, sometimes ridiculous. None of the characters are “subtle” — especially Robert De Niro’s exaggerated talk show host Murray Franklin — but this all serves a purpose in creating a vision of a city in turmoil. Fleck nonetheless remains the only character with any real development.

Through presenting Fleck’s descent into violent crime — and how much support he receives by those who share his revolutionary ideas — “Joker” prompts introspection about the hatred many of us feel toward the Other, whoever that might be. 

By referencing the deep-seated hatred permeating a fractured society, and people acting on that hatred to a radical extent, “Joker” presents an apocalyptic reality where those real, tangible sentiments are brought to horrific fruition. 

And that’s undeniably admirable and ambitious, in my humble opinion. And polarizing, sure, but all good films should be.

Oh, and guess what? “Joker” is a comic book film. How amazing is that! More filmmakers should take notice of how Phillips will lure unassuming audiences to theaters and pull the rug out from under them.

While Phoenix’s performance and thought-provoking, though blunt, themes make “Joker” unmissable, Phillips’ direction and the awe-inspiring soundtrack are also worth noting.

Employing prolonged one-takes, wide-angle shots and an overabundance of slow motion and interpretive dance sequences, the cinematography in “Joker” feels more like an independent art film than a mainstream, comic book character origin story.

This won’t be to everyone’s liking, obviously. Many will say that “Joker” is boring and slow. I couldn’t disagree more, but readers will note that I have absolutely no qualms about deliberate pacing in films.

The orchestral soundtrack is also impeccable, matching Fleck’s fractured psychology beautifully.

Sure, some of the ties to DC Comics feel somewhat shoehorned into the story. Sure, the dialogue is a bit too on the nose. Sure, the film shares numerous similarities with Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” But who really cares?

Most of us students are relatively well off and living in the blissful, stress-free heaven of Truman State University. Sometimes it’s important to see the other side. Viewers should brave the controversy and go watch “Joker” for themselves. I trust that my readers won’t follow Fleck’s example.