“Joker” review and why we need controversies

Jack Harris ’22 reviews and explains the controversy behind the new film “Joker”.

Joker (Joaquin Phoenix) dances down a staircase in an iconic scene from the film

Warner Bros. Pictures

Joker (Joaquin Phoenix) dances down a staircase in an iconic scene from the film

By Jack Harris, West High School

From Todd Phillips, director of “The Hangover” trilogy, comes one of the most beautiful, jarring and controversial films in years. “Joker” is, at its best, a unique character study that just so happens to take place in the DC universe. If the movie hadn’t taken place in Gotham City, it would’ve undoubtedly been better. The fact that the movie needs to remind us every 15 minutes that it is a comic book movie disturbs the flow of what is otherwise, a beautiful and accusatory character study.

“Joker” as a piece of art; it looks magnificent. For a director known purely for making low budget raunchy comedies, Phillips has truly outdone himself. There are many interesting shots, some of which have enough depth that they add to the plot and message of the movie. Phillips also does a commendable job setting the tone with his cinematography. There is one scene where Joker marches towards another character while holding a gun and firing it. Phillips uses a tracking shot from the side that perfectly frames Joaquin (Wah-Keen) Phoenix’s performance and terrifies the audience. “Joker” looks like a masterful painting because much of the time it was designed that way. The color palette is visually pleasing and quite similar to that of an animated movie where every hue is selected individually creating a radiant collage of colors.

“Joker” is an intelligent piece of art that intends to challenge the viewer’s status quo”

— Jack Harris '22

As divine as the color palette is, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is what shines brightest in “Joker”. Joker is a fictional character but Phoenix gives a career-defining performance, and for 2 hours and 2 minutes he completely transforms into Arthur Fleck. Phoenix has a good chance at becoming the second actor to win an Oscar for playing the titular insane clown. Even though many believe Heath Ledger’s Joker was perfection, Phoenix gives an interpretation completely his own, with a much more emotional performance than Ledger, and more focused on the dreams and the suffering that his character is going through.

That emotion that Phoenix brings to the character is what makes Joker such an interesting character. As disturbed of a character as he is, Arthur Fleck in the eyes of the filmmakers, is a sympathetic protagonist. Arthur Fleck is a mentally ill man who is being pushed lower and lower by the society he lives in. Even though he is a cold-blooded murderer he’s still at times sympathetic character because he is merely a product of his environment. For a killer clown, Joker’s plight of just wanting stability, happiness and to be left alone, is depressingly human.

In the movie there is an ongoing economic depression and the people who are supposed to help those like Arthur (the government, family, society as a whole) instead look down on them and blaming them for their own struggles. Eventually these oppressed people, led by Joker, rebel against their oppressive society leading to carnage and death.

For 2 hours and 2 minutes [Joaquin Phoenix] completely transforms into Arthur Fleck”

— Jack Harris '22

Another main controversy in “Joker” stems from people saying that it is violent and that it shouldn’t make Joker a sympathetic character. The movie is violent, it’s rated R for a reason, but is significantly less violent than movies like “Deadpool” or “Logan”. The difference is the “Joker” is a much darker movie about an insane clown, where the violence has a crueler and malicious tone. The idea that the Joker shouldn’t be complex because he’s a villain is laughable. “Joker” is an intelligent piece of art that intends to challenge the viewer’s status quo. Just because the ideas that are presented in this film are provocative, doesn’t mean they don’t have a point .

“Joker” is giving a message directly to the society and the viewers: “You are at fault for creating people and living conditions that create the Joker.” This is a hard message to accept. Whenever you hear about a mass shooting or a suicide do you really want to tell yourself, “There are things I’ve done that helped lead to that”? The answer is obviously no, no one wants to think about that, but nevertheless it’s something we as a society need to reluctantly accept.

That being said this is not a perfect movie. The frequent comic-book vibes could distract someone who isn’t a fan of those sorts of movies. There is however enough excellence in here to satisfy most people. How much you enjoy this movie is heavily reliant on what you expect going in. If you expect to hate it, you will. If you expect it to be your favorite movie of the year, odds are it will. So keep an open mind going in, but remain cautiously optimistic.

This story was originally published on West Side Story on October 7, 2019.