Joker (2019). Film review of the violent drama starring Joaquin Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix Joker bus



star rating 3 out of 5 worth watching


1 Star/Awful/Give this one a miss

Film review, by Jason Day, of Joker, the dark and violent drama about a man who performs as a clown suffering a breakdown who turns into the Joker featured in the DC Batman comics. Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De Niro.

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Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a man who has been forgotten by society living in the fetid, every-man-for-himself misery of an uncaring city lorded over by the rich who look down on the poor.

Craving recognition and determined to make it as a comedian like his TV chat show host icon Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) but feeling the strain of a world he feels is attacking him, underlined by a series of brutal physical beatings he suffers, Arthur has a breakdown and turns into the psychotically unhinged anti-hero, Joker.

Review, by @Reelreviewer

My mother always tells me to smile and put on a happy face. She told me I had a purpose: to bring laughter and joy to the world.

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck (Joker, 2019).

A reviewer on this site once said: “Should cinema be dangerous?”

Their point, related to the Michael Moore film Where to Invade Next (2015), was should cinema, that art form traditionally seen as being too precious and focused on visuals to tackle complex topics like politics and educating and elevating its audience.

Is cinema ‘up to the job’?

It lead to a brief but mammoth debate on Twitter, joined by Moore himself, who felt that it absolutely should.

Image of Joaquin Phoenix as Joker atop a flight of stairs
“Love that Joker”…or maybe not. Joaquin Phoenix takes the title role. (Image: Warner Bros.)

I was reminded of this exchange after seeing Joker (2019) this weekend. I saw it with friend Win Hughes and we had a fairly similar take on it.

Our post-match chin-wag led to a fabulous conversation. We found Joker to be ‘dangerous’ at least in one sense of the word: ‘likely to cause trouble or have adverse consequences.’

Will there be riots on the streets and ultra-beatings, a la The Clockwork Orange (1971) after people see Joker? From the general public more than likely not, but the ‘dangerous’ in my mind’s eye is more related to how the action and the positioning of the title character could trouble troubled people’s minds. To explain…

Win gave the most lacerating summing up, awarding it only one out of five stars:

Basicially, this is two hours and one minute of my life I will not get back.

This film was relentlessly grim, the incel* ideation being rather unpleasant. Angry, violent misogyny…I felt really uncomfortable with that aspect of the film.

The Studio’s denouement didn’t fit with the rest of the film and the about face of De Niro’s character into a concerned citizen didn’t fit with his earlier characterisation.

*Incels are involuntarily celibate, usually males, in online communities. Incel communities have been criticized by the media and researchers for being misogynist, encouraging violence, as well as spreading extremist views and radicalizing their members.

I don’t agree with the 1/5 star review and I am glad to see that co-writer/director Todd Phillips has moved away from the inane, supposed comedies that were The Hangover series. But he has stepped up from the banal to the truly bizarre and challenging.

I don’t mind a challenge every now and then!

Yes, I am set in my cinematic ways and generally choose the movies I view because I am in some way part sold-in to see them, but I like to be taken out of my comfort zone every now and then. I agree with my old reviewer about that ‘dangerous’ view – cinema needs to shake us all up from our slumber every now and then.

Sat alone in the Stygian dark of the picture palace auditorium, with only the odd crunch crunch of popcorn and slurp of a soda disturbing the hushed quiet around you, cinema alone has the power to push and pummel your thoughts, isolated as you are.

For me, Joker did just that…uncomfortably so.

These are not bad things for a reviewer to deal with and I have done so before. Just as with films like Schindler’s List (1993) and 12 Years a Slave (2013), my likes and dislikes were grabbed by the throat, slammed against the wall and given a damn good slapping.

And all the better for it.

Joker did the same thing to me although, aside from the incredible and disturbing, physically and mentally twisted performance of the awesome Phoenix – none of the actors get much of a look in, even the great De Niro as the slimy TV host, in a role reversal of the characters he played in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982) – I felt there was little else of ‘merit’.

The King of Comedy? Or The Prince and the Pauper? Robert De Niro looks down on – as everyone else does – Arthur Fleck in Joker (2019). (Image: Warner Bros.)

I keep putting inverted commas around words in this review because I feel I need to visibly state that despite my worth watching star rating, I am not positively endorsing it.

I am ‘glad’ – what a word! – I saw it, but it left me scratching my head a fair about why.

It will be interesting to see what happens when real life incels see this movie (obviously not at the cinema, but when it’s available for digital download).

Arthur Fleck – note the surname. Even this moniker signifies his utter irrelevance and ‘smallness’ – becomes a ‘hero’ who is reborn after a ‘purifying’ breakdown to ‘save’ his long hated home and even longer hated community.

I appreciate that the research has it that violent films don’t maker people become violent. But what about those who are at that tipping point?

In the Stygian dark of their solitary lives, with only the flickering light of their computers for illumination, foaming with fury at the world outside, will other incels out there see Arthur Fleck as their messiah and Joker as a ‘call to arms’?

Let us hope not and that a clear delineation between the fiction on film and the world off screen prevails.

Cast & credits

Director: Todd Phillips. 2hr 1 min/121 mins. BRON Studios/Creative Wealth Media Finance/DC Ciomics/DC Entertainment/Joint Effort/Village Roadshow Pictures/Warner Bros. (15)

Producers: Bradley Cooper, Todd Phillips, Emma Tillinger Koskoff.
Writers: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver.
Camera: Lawrence Sher.
Music: Hildur Guðnadóttir.
Sets: Mark Friedberg.

Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beets, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Glenn Fleshler, Leigh Gill, Josh Pais.


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