I know I’m a few weeks late with this, since most people have already written their reviews and the hype train has somewhat sailed. But whatever. I’m also fully aware that many people are going to disagree with the title of this piece, so let me be clear: Joker is not a bad movie as far as it regards the acting or shooting. Especially Joaquin Phoenix’ performance was outstanding. Nothing to argue about that.
I don’t want to be this edgy guy who is against something just for the sole reason most other people are loving it. I can perfectly understand why people think Joker was one of the best movies ever made.
The movie aims extremely high and misses the mark. It is overambitious and therefore fails to provide a convincing narrative.
It almost seems as if during the whole time the movie can’t really decide, whether it wants to portray the extremes of a fictitious and overdrawn personality or whether it wants to tell a realistic story. Neither of these two aspects work out. During the course of the hype I often read the comparison to Heath Ledger’s Joker and that Phoenix was at least as good. If you look at this comparison without the cinematic context, I can agree with it. However, the Joker in The Dark Knight functions a lot better, as Christopher Nolan concentrated very specifically on not telling a realistic story, but on showing the extreme character traits of a mad Joker within a fictional universe. In this context, the Joker seems a lot more credible than the one from the movie with the same name.
Some critics wrote that basically every one of us could become a Joker, if the external circumstances just push us hard enough. This is, formally speaking, a correct assumption, as this possibility can never be completely ruled out, of course, but it’s still not very likely. Terrible things happen to a lot of people. They are abused, raped, mutilated, develop psychological problems – and yet do not become mass murderers. So no, not all of us could become Jokers. Human behavior is not a one-dimensional downward spiral that eventually ends in destructive, murderous nihilism when external circumstances are bad enough. There are so many variables involved that the assumption of this kind of causal relationship seems to be very abbreviated.
One could argue that one of the fundamental moral statements of the film is that you should be kind to your fellow human beings, because who knows? Maybe the other one is also a potential killer who will remember that you didn’t bring him a donut. But this point of view seems quite cynical to me, because shouldn’t the goal be to treat your fellow human beings with respect and appreciation regardless of their background and possibilities? Maybe I am a bit naive about this, but this seems to me to be a much more sustainable approach.
This wouldn’t be a real problem if the film didn’t constantly try to convey a realistic picture of the challenges of a mentally ill person who is largely rejected by his environment and ultimately betrayed by his own mother. Cameron Monaghan, the actor who impersonated a variant of Joker in the series Gotham (even though he wasn’t called like that there), describes this dilemma very well when he says:
“In reality, performances exist on this continuum of… The performance needs to be right for the material that it’s within.”
Context matters. Monaghan praises both story and presentation – a statement that I obviously will not agree with. I think, if Todd Phillips had committed himself to one variant – realistic drama or fictional excess – a much better film would have been made in the end. By trying to combine both, he fails on a high level and wastes a lot of Joaquin Phoenix’s acting talent at the same time.
It’s fair to say that I don’t believe that the Joker as a character could ever work credibly in a realistic setting. His character traits are too overdrawn, too extreme for that. Which doesn’t mean that there can’t be such people in the real world, there are, but the character of the Joker and his inspired followers reveal the (temporary?) human need for complete nihilism. What happens when we simply override the rules of society and no longer care how our behavior affects others? It seems as if all we need is a particularly charismatic or crazy role model, and suddenly the silent masses will throw away all their values to revolt against the rich and powerful and soak the streets in blood and destruction. This escalation of events, the exaggeration of excessive violence and the chaos that goes with it, is many things. But it is not realistic.
Maybe it’s not fair to measure a film against a quality criterion like realism, but since these are my blog and my thoughts here, I can occasionally give a damn about fairness.
I’m also aware that this representation of the Joker within the DC universe will probably remain a novelty. It’s obvious that Todd Phillips left the comics out of the film as much as possible. According to his own statement he was only inspired by Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, but apart from the story about a failed stand-up comedian, there is not much left what they had in common. Which is a shame, because Alan Moore is a literary god, as soon as it comes to the development of authentic, fictional stories and you could have found a fantastic template in it, one that wouldn’t have to struggle with the dilemma between realism and fiction. Again: Potential wasted.
I’m probably just a bit disappointed, because my own expectations of the film were extremely high after all the hype. As a result, I left the cinema disillusioned. It remains to be hoped that this contradiction will dissolve with a possible sequel. The performance power of Joaquin Phoenix in a Joker, whose story is again closer to the comics, would have the potential to become a fantastic film, which I would love to watch several times. Due to the gigantic success of the first part, I dare to doubt that this direction will be taken.
But I’m young and still have the occasional dreams.