Movie Review: Todd Phillips’ Joker Is A Welcome Horror

Warner Brothers

Warner Brothers

By Pablo Greene

It’s always unfortunate when a movie carries too much buzz and speculation before its world wide premiere. Press, whether good or bad, can cause a whole rift among people who may have “heard” a movie will shock or perhaps even disappoint viewers. Remember The Last Temptation of Christ? Yep. Been there. And yet, I believe film is worth seeing, even when it’s got a bit of a stink around its opening. Todd Phillips, the director of The Hangover, has skillfully delivered a film that sets a new precedent for our era of superhero-obsessed cinema. His Joker, as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, manages to take us to new, terrifying depths of the famous comic-book supervillain, while at the same time providing a commentary on capitalism that refuses to stay quiet. And there’s also something that this movie does, that almost no other recent superhero film has managed to do.

Joker functions as a horror film. A sublime, and powerful horror film. And that’s one of the reasons it’s worth seeing.

I sat in the theater watching this morose tale of isolation, violence, disappointment and rage, and just ten minutes into the film, I realized that Todd Phillips was going to take us to the darkest places of the Joker as a character. If you are not familiar with films like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver or John McNaughton’s 1990 film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, I would suggest streaming them as soon as you can. I also think you should watch season 1 of Mindhunter, and in particular, pay attention to how carefully the evil of real-life serial killer Ed Kemper is told in the Netflix series. It can provide a powerful base of material in which you can appreciate a movie like Joker on its terms as a horror thriller. 

The film has an incredible look, thanks to cinematographer Lawrence Sher. The audio editing delivers chills and also emotional anguish. Every time we hear Arthur’s awkward laugh, we are teetering on the edge of absolute awkwardness, and something else: the agony of being human.

Throughout Joker, Phillips pays homage more than once to Brian DePalma, who also earned his share of controversies throughout his career for creating films that disturbed and left viewers feeling bruised (or offended) after viewing. One of the most notable of these films is Carrie, and it’s no surprise to see references in this film to the very same state of isolation and pathos that is shared by both Carrie White and Arthur Fleck. 

Let me also clear something up. Despite what you may have read in other reviews or on social media, this film is not Scorsese light. Although it does have a few nods to Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, Joker is unmistakably post-modern, and a film of the 21st century. It’s also a narrative that functions on its own. This is a movie that’s highly self aware about superhero and comic tropes, and it’s no imitation of former films. I love Scorsese’s movies, and he’s a master of his craft. But Joker has to be watched on its own terms.

Spoilers Ahead

Phillips’ version of the Joker presents us with Arthur Fleck, a comedian suffering from mental illness (which he is aware of), who is struggling to make ends meet while taking care of his mother and putting on his comedy act in a a Gotham that has oppressed the middle and lower classes and become a type of living nightmare. Arthur’s luck goes from bad to worse, as he’s fired from jobs for inappropriate and violent behavior. He dreams simply of being seen, which is heartbreaking to watch. From the very early scenes in the movie we see this line in his diary, and throughout the movie, he is ignored, belittled, and yes, made invisible by co-workers, teens in the street, his boss, and even his own mother. Arthur also learns that he may be the son of Thomas Wayne, millionaire and father to future rubber fetishist Bruce Wayne. Thomas Wayne is portrayed as a Trump figure in this film, promising salvation, but in the end being only interested in his own personal gain.

The violence in this movie builds, and when it arrives, it’s brutal, and set off in a chain reaction. Much criticism has arisen from this loner sensibility as the movie has released. Many critics and social media accounts have suggested that this film only encourages angry loner types to commit angry acts of gun violence, like the ones we see every week in the United States. But I never got this impression from the film. The film is describing a state of mind, not advocating for the behaviors that result from it. Trust me, there’s far more violent TV shows and movies available on Netflix and cinema today that glorify violence by making it cartoony and fun. And yes, one of the franchises that is most guilty of this is the MCU. Once the Avengers films began to release, I was shocked at how easily they brushed off the consequences of killing thousands of people and not addressing the real consequences of those crimes. 

In Joker, I felt like every death in the film left me with an emotional impact, and that’s one of its strengths. As Arthur Fleck becomes more unhinged, I was reminded of Michael Rooker’s performance in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. That movie was brutal, unpleasant, and also very, very watchable. I felt like in that film, I was watching a man go deeper into becoming a monster. And I feel the same way about Joker. This is a Joker that is not meant to be some type of anti-hero that we root for. Instead, he is embodied psychosis, and guess what? That pretty much encapsulates what makes the character so sinister and great in the source material of comic books. The psychotic and cruel Joker of Alan Moore’s Killing Joke is here in a new form, played with a very strange vulnerability, and Joaquin Phoenix has managed to bring something fresh to the role while also staying true to the roots of the comics.

Joker is a really important film for this particular decade we are living in, because it’s trying to point out two very important ideas. One is that the capitalist system is literally eating our planet, and our society alive. In the film we see many citizens reading a newspaper headline that says suggests “Kill the Rich” is a whole new movement. This points out the struggles we are living through. Here in the United States, there is a squeeze of the middle class that has been happening for decades. But more than half of the planet lives in dire poverty, exploited by the upper echelons of society, which includes those of us in the middle class. As an allegory, Joker works in delivering this idea. Secondly, this film takes a stab at deconstructing superheroes, and suggests to us that our obsession with celebrity and the archetype of superheroes may possibly be our own demise. There isn’t a single instance of Batman in this movie, other than Bruce Wayne when he’s a boy. And I was glad to see that. This Joker felt tangible, real, and less of a purple-suited icon that can be slapped on a McDonald’s happy meal. This makes me hopeful for the future. You know that I love my traditional superhero stories, too. There’s nothing wrong with them. But we have a glut of those stories. It’s sometimes just overload. Todd Phillips took some new chances with Joker, and it pays off. He’s carving out a new type of superhero story in a way that is similar to the comic book (and Amazon series) The Boys. All I hope is that producer never, ever make a sequel to this film. It’s fine as a standalone, and I don’t need to see Batman intervene in the future. Enough has been said through Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. 

A Touch of Queerness

This film is definitely not what I would call a queer film, and yet, the scenes where Arthur Fleck discovers his true inner self while wearing the clown makeup are sublime. When Arthur is in his Joker drag, his body language changes, he veers into a very femme type of performance, elegant as the neck of a swan, and absolutely steeped in his own bliss. Many drag queens have spoken and written in the past about their experiences in drag, and how their drag persona helps them reveal a person they feel really exists inside them. For full disclosure, I also performed in drag about 15 years ago for the Neo Futurists in Chicago, and I can attest that my persona and body language changed when I had the clothes and the makeup on. I felt this dynamic watching Joaquin Phoenix’s body literally transform when he was finally accessing his very dangerous inner self as the Joker.

Superhero Fetish Elements?

Unfortunately, I can’t say that this film has any superhero fetish elements that I can speak to. Because Todd Phillips thankfully stayed away from tights and capes in his version of Gotham, we are left with a costume design aesthetic that more closely resembles early 1980’s New York. Denim and polyester suits rule, and wool suits create a worn-out, almost dusty look to the costuming. Because the film is also a horror film, there’s not much emphasis on sexuality, other than Arthur Fleck’s fantasies of romancing his neighbor. Surely, this Joker has a very dangerous and unexplored sexuality, but I didn’t feel that this was a focus for coded arousal of the audience. If you want a sexier joker, I suggest you check out Heath Ledger’s scene in The Dark Knight where he’s in drag as a nurse. That to me was way more fetish-oriented, and in comparison, actually kind of playful and fun.

My Recommendation

This film is perfect for film lovers. You should expect shock, awe, and perhaps even a sense of metaphorical nausea when watching this film. If you are averse to violence, gore and psychological discomfort, sit this one out. It’s definitely worth seeing it on the big screen for its great cinematography and sound editing. This ain’t no Infinity War. And thankfully so.

Superhero FilmsEditor