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joker film review essay

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In mainstream movies today, “dark” is just another flavor. Like “edgy,” it’s an option you use depending on what market you want to reach. And it is particularly useful when injected into the comic book genre.   

Darkness no longer has much to do with feelings of alienation the filmmaker wants to express or purge, as was the case with a film like “ Taxi Driver .” It’s not about exploring uncomfortable ideas, as was done in “ The King of Comedy .” Do you think Todd Phillips , who co-wrote and directed “Joker,” and references those movies so often you might expect that  Martin Scorsese  was enlisted as an executive producer here as a way of heading off a plagiarism lawsuit (he dropped out not too long after signing on, however), really cares about income inequality, celebrity worship, and the lack of civility in contemporary society? I don’t know him personally but I bet he doesn’t give a toss. He’s got the pile he made on those “Hangover” movies—which some believe have indeed contributed to the lack of civility in etc.—and can not only buy up all the water that’s going to be denied us regular slobs after the big one hits, he can afford the bunker for after the bigger one hits.

Which is not to go so far as to say that if you buy into “Joker,” the joke’s on you. (Except in the long run it really is.) If you live to see Joaquin Phoenix go to performing extremes like nobody’s business, this movie really is the apotheosis of that. As Arthur Fleck, the increasingly unglued street clown and wannabe stand-up comic down and out in what looks like 1980s Gotham (although who knows what period detail looks like in fictional cities), Phoenix flails, dances, laughs maniacally, puts things in his mouth that shouldn’t go there, and commits a couple of genuinely ugly and disgusting crimes with ferocious relish.

Much has been made, by Warner, and I guess DC Comics, of the fact that this is meant as a “standalone” film that has no narrative connection to other pictures in the DC Universe, but that’s having your cake and eating it too when you still name your lunatic asylum “Arkham” and your cinematic DC Universe is changing its Batmen every twenty minutes anyway. Maybe what they really mean is that this is the first and last DC movie that’s going to be rated R.

A rating it thoroughly earns. The violence in this movie means to shock, and it does. Fleck’s alienation in the early scenes evokes Travis Bickle’s, but this movie is too chicken-livered to give Fleck Bickle’s racism, although it depicts him mostly getting hassled by people of color in the first third. Fleck is also fixated with a Carson-like talk-show host played by Robert De Niro , reversing the “King of Comedy” player positions. He also likes the black woman down the hall from him, played by Zazie Beetz . The casting is not just meant to give the movie bragging rights on the zeitgeist curve, but to evoke Diahnne Abbott in both “Taxi Driver” and “Comedy.” Fleck’s seemingly successful wooing of the character is a jaw-dropper that had me thinking Beetz ought to fire her agent, but a late-game clarification makes it … well, forgivable is not quite the word, but it will do.

As Gotham begins to burn (the civil unrest starts with a garbage strike), Fleck, who has been taken as a vigilante by much of the city’s 99%, doesn’t quite know what to make of his underground cult stardom. (The city is beset by rioters in clown makeup and clown masks; because this movie is rather suddenly behind the curve in “clowns-are-scary” awareness—only Pennywise gets a special dispensation these days—these sequences look like “The Revolt of the Juggalos” or something equally laughable.) His mom ( Frances Conroy , the poor woman) has been writing letters to her former employer, the magnate Thomas Wayne, and Arthur opens one of the missives and reads them, learning something disturbing. 

The storyline in and of itself is not a total miss. But once the movie starts lifting shots from “ A Clockwork Orange ” (and yes, Phillips and company got Warners to let them use the Saul Bass studio logo for the opening credits, in white on red, yet) you know its priorities are less in entertainment than in generating self-importance. As social commentary, “Joker” is pernicious garbage. But besides the wacky pleasures of Phoenix’s performance, it also displays some major movie studio core competencies, in a not dissimilar way to what “A Star Is Born” presented last year. ( Bradley Cooper is a producer.) The supporting players, including Glenn Fleshler and Brian Tyree Henry , bring added value to their scenes, and the whole thing feels like a movie. The final minutes, which will move any sentient viewer to mutter “would you just pick a goddamn ending and stick to it?” are likely an indication of what kind of mess we would have had on our hands had Phillips been left entirely to his own cynical incoherent devices for the entire runtime. Fortunately, he gets by with a little help from his friends. 

This review was originally filed from the Venice Film Festival on August 31st. 

Glenn Kenny

Glenn Kenny

Glenn Kenny was the chief film critic of Premiere magazine for almost half of its existence. He has written for a host of other publications and resides in Brooklyn. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here .

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Joker movie poster

Joker (2019)

Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images.

118 minutes

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck / Joker

Zazie Beetz as Sophie Dumond

Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin

Brett Cullen as Thomas Wayne

Frances Conroy as Penny Fleck

Douglas Hodge as Alfred Pennyworth

Shea Whigham as GCPD Detective

Marc Maron as Ted Marco


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‘Joker’ Review: Are You Kidding Me?

Todd Phillips’s supervillain origin story starring Joaquin Phoenix is stirring up a fierce debate, but it’s not interesting enough to argue about.

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‘Joker’ | Anatomy of a Scene

Todd phillips narrates a sequence from “joker.”.

Hi, this is Todd Phillips. I’m the director of “Joker.” So this scene is interesting because it’s right after a life-changing cataclysmic event in Arthur’s life, and he’s found this little kind of rundown park bathroom to go in and collect his thoughts and get himself together. What’s interesting about this scene to me is it’s entirely different than what we had scripted. In the script, Arthur was to come into the bathroom, hide his gun, wash off his makeup, and staring at himself in the mirror like what have I done. And when we got to the set on the day, Joaquin and I just sort of stood around like, this doesn’t really seem very Arthur. Why would Arthur care to hide his gun? And we really kind of tossed around a million ways to just do something different. And it was about an hour into it and I said, hey, you know, I got this piece of music from Hildur. Hildur Gudnadottir is our composer, and she’d been sending me music throughout, while we were shooting. And I just wanted to play Joaquin this piece of music. And Joaquin just started to dance to the music, and it was just me and him alone in the bathroom. There’s 250 people on the crew waiting outside. And he just starts doing this dance, and we both kind of look at each other and said, O.K., that’s the scene. It made sense to us because when I first met with Joaquin and we first started talking about “Joker,” I talked to him that Arthur is one of those people that has music in him. So music and dance became a theme in the film. And this is the second time we see him dancing, and it’s a little bit of Joker coming out, a little bit more than the scene before and a little bit less than the next time we see him dance. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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By A.O. Scott

Since its debut a few weeks ago at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the top prize , Todd Phillips’s “ Joker ” has stirred up quite a tempest. Hands have been wrung about the movie’s supposed potential to inspire acts of real-life violence, and criticism of its brutal nihilism has been met with a counter-backlash, including from Phillips himself, who has been sounding off about the “far left” and “woke culture” and other threats to the ability of a murderous clown to make money unmolested. Meanwhile, the usual armies of skeptics and fans have squared off with ready-made accusations of bad faith, hypersensitivity and quasi-fascist groupthink.

We are now at the phase of the argument cycle when actual ticket buyers have a chance to see what all the fuss is about, which means that it’s also time for me to say my piece. And what I have to say is: Are you kidding me?

To be worth arguing about, a movie must first of all be interesting: it must have, if not a coherent point of view, at least a worked-out, thought-provoking set of themes, some kind of imaginative contact with the world as we know it. “ Joker ,” an empty, foggy exercise in second-hand style and second-rate philosophizing, has none of that. Besotted with the notion of its own audacity — as if willful unpleasantness were a form of artistic courage — the film turns out to be afraid of its own shadow, or at least of the faintest shadow of any actual relevance.

It barely even works within the confines of its own genre, the comic-book movie. “Joker” is a supervillain origin story, involving a character whose big-screen résumé already includes three Oscar winners (two for other roles, but still). It’s not hard to see the appeal. The Joker, an embodiment of pure anarchy, can be played light or heavy, scary or fun or all at once. He can sneer like Jack Nicholson, snarl like Heath Ledger or … I’m still not sure what Jared Leto was doing, but never mind.

As embodied by Joaquin Phoenix, he laughs a lot — enough to ensure that no one else will. The hallmark of this “Joker” is its solemn witlessness. You might wonder how this could be the work of the same Todd Phillips who directed “The Hangover” and “Road Trip,” which have at least a reputation for being funny. The cleverest bit here is casting Robert De Niro as a late-night, Carsonesque talk-show host similar to the one played by Jerry Lewis in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.” In that movie, De Niro was the crazy stalker, a talentless wannabe presuming to breathe the same air as his idol and quarry. This time out, he’s in the big chair, feeding the celebrity obsessions of Arthur Fleck.

That’s the Joker’s alter ego: a lonely, damaged man eking out an abject living as a clown-for-hire and living in a drab apartment with his mother (Frances Conroy). Phillips, who wrote the script with Scott Silver, takes us back to the bad old days of Gotham City, when work was scarce, rats were rampant and a garbage strike fouled the streets. Fleck is bullied by thieving poor kids and drunken rich guys, goaded to the point of murder by the meanness of the world. He has a crush on a neighbor (Zazie Beetz) that he thinks might be reciprocated. He keeps a notebook full of stand-up material and works up the nerve to go onstage at a nightclub open-mic night.

Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker in Todd Phillips’s film.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these plot points, or with the details that knit “Joker” into the familiar Batman world. Arthur has a connection to the Wayne family — we meet Alfred the butler and young Bruce — and also to Arkham Asylum. The problems arise when the film revs its allegorical engine and Phoenix tries to assemble a character from the tics and tropes he has been given.

Skinny, twitchy and at times startlingly graceful — Phoenix is one of the modern screen’s underrated dancers — Arthur has a physical and psychological resemblance to Freddie Quell, the misfit drifter Phoenix played in “The Master.” But he also carries the burden of being a victimized Everyman in a parable that can’t get its story straight. Arthur’s uncontrollable laughter arises from a medical condition that is possibly the result of childhood abuse. His profound alienation also arises from social inequality, the decline of civility, political corruption, television, government bureaucracy and a slew of other causes. Rich people are awful. Poor people are awful. Joker’s embrace of radical evil becomes a kind of integrity.

Or something. It’s hard to say if the muddle “Joker” makes of itself arises from confusion or cowardice, but the result is less a depiction of nihilism than a story about nothing. The look and the sound — cinematography by Lawrence Sher, cello-heavy score by Hildur Gudnadottir — connote gravity and depth, but the movie is weightless and shallow. It isn’t any fun, and it can’t be taken seriously. Is that the joke?

Rated R. Killer clown stuff. Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes.


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Joaquin Phoenix stars in Joker.

Joker: reviews and analysis of the year’s most controversial comic book movie

The stand-alone R-rated origin story for Batman’s nemesis, starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by Todd Phillips, won awards and praise while also igniting a firestorm of controversy.

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Joker , a stand-alone origin story for Batman’s psychotic arch-nemesis, was already one of the most-reviled and most-defended movies of 2019 weeks before its October 3 release. Starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by the Hangover trilogy’s Todd Phillips, Joker was deemed dangerous by its most vocal critics, akin to an incel training manual. To some of the character’s and movie’s fans, those critical reviews and negative reactions were just another example of social justice warrior overreach .

Still, the movie garnered plaudits, with largely middling-to-positive reviews , and it won the prestigious Golden Lion , the Venice Film Festival’s top prize.

Before the movie was released, Joker’s studio Warner Bros. and family members of those killed in the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, mass shooting were in conversation over the possible danger the movie poses to moviegoers. Others worried about the character’s most toxic fans threatening audiences on opening weekend.

But its opening weekend was relatively calm. The movie broke records, becoming the biggest October opening of all time at $93.5 million. Joker now boasts the fourth biggest opening for an R-rated film in history. And its strong showing suggests more gritty stand-alone movies about comic book villains are likely to loom in the future.

Joker is the most-nominated film at this year’s Oscars. It shouldn’t win Best Picture.

Our roundtable discusses the Oscar chances for Todd Phillips’s take on the origin of the notorious villain.

Did Joker deserve all the discourse?

Todd Phillips’s gritty supervillain origin story might be irresponsible. It also might just be boring.

Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy are two sides of a story that Joker doesn’t get

Todd Phillips’s movie pays homage to the unsettling classics, but misses their point.

Why Joker is unlikely to inspire real-world violence, explained by an expert

The movie sparked worry that its antisocial violence might speak to extremists. Radicalization expert Robert Evans tells us why that probably won’t happen.

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Love it or hate it, the Joker movie presents a tempting fantasy

It’s a persecution complex turned into a wish-fulfillment power trip.

By Tasha Robinson / @ TashaRobinson

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joker film review essay

Todd Phillips’ standalone supervillain origin story Joker is arriving in theaters amid so much controversy and concern about the potential for copycat violence that the debate has largely overwhelmed the film itself. It’s been fascinating to watch the discussion around the movie shift from “Do we really need another Joker story so soon after Suicide Squad ?” to “Is Joker full of dangerous ideas that will spur its worst fans to murder?” The initial worries around Joker assumed the movie would be unnecessary, its impact negligible. The current questions ascribe it with too much importance, as if it might incite full-blown anarchy just by existing.

As usual in a case where people leap to extremes, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Joker may make some people who feel marginalized feel more seen and more powerful, and they may act out in response. There are some ugly, self-serving messages in the movie, which is incongruously bent on creating sympathy for Batman’s worst enemy and one of DC Comics’ most notoriously callous mass murderers and atrocity architects. But love it or hate it, the film does spin up a tempting fantasy of persecution and relief, of embracing nihilism as a means of complete escape from a terrible world.

It’s a self-pitying fantasy, certainly. Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver follow in the footsteps of Joel Schumacher’s 1993 drama Falling Down in portraying the world as a cartoonishly dark and uncaring place, an almost comically vile carnival where the protagonist can’t find a hint of comfort or relief. In a thoroughly immersed performance that’s being seen as a guaranteed awards-season attention magnet, Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a part-time rent-a-clown working for a seedy talent agency full of exaggerated grotesques. Arthur is mentally ill and coping via meds and court-ordered therapy, which don’t offer comfort or represent caring. He’s devoted to his sick mother Penny (Frances Conroy), who’s encouraged him to see himself as a joyous light in the world, bringing laughter to the people.

The problem is that he isn’t particularly funny. He’s painfully awkward, the kind of twitchy, social incompetence people shy away from in public because his erratic behavior feels like it could turn dangerous — or at least uncomfortable for them. It’s easy for viewers to empathize with his desire to be loved, without necessarily loving him. When he says he feels invisible, it’s clear why: he’s the kind of person people look away from on the street, out of apathy or active discomfort.

joker film review essay

That tension between sympathy and revulsion is one of the most honest things about Joker , which mostly goes out of its way to make the world awful. While working as a sign-twirler, Arthur is randomly beaten by a handful of kids, who steal his sign and then break it over his head. His boss not only doesn’t believe his story, he demands Arthur pay for the missing sign. The dramatic ironies and injustices compound throughout the film, until it’s clear that Arthur isn’t paranoid, the world really is out to get him. And then he takes violent, irrevocable action.

For much of its runtime, Joker is a consciously ugly film, visually and emotionally. Arthur starts with close to nothing, and loses it all incrementally, in ways designed to hurt empathetic viewers. Phillips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher (who also DP’d for all three of Phillips’ Hangover movies) give the film a sickeningly grungy, underlit, David Fincher-esque look, especially in Arthur’s squalid home. Everything about the storytelling — the ominous, booming score; the gritty darkness; the invasive sound design — is designed to be oppressive, and to push the audience toward Arthur’s point of view as the primary victim of all the oppression. It’s hypnotic just how horrifying Arthur’s existence is, just as Phoenix’s performance is hypnotic as he spirals from fragile hope into increasingly outsized and confident acts of destruction.

joker film review essay

And then he escapes it all, by learning not to care — not about how or whether other people see him, not about whether he hurts or frightens or kills them, not about whether his final-act manifesto makes any sort of coherent sense. The important part of Arthur’s story — and the cause for so much of the concern around Joker — is that when he embraces his most nihilistic and destructive impulses, he suddenly earns the praise and attention he’s been lacking. That may not fully motivate him, but it’s meant as a message for the segment of the audience that feels closest to Arthur, those who feel most unseen and unloved: plenty of people agree with you that the world is unfair and ugly, and if you did something about it, they’d back your play.  

Like Falling Down — and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver , which Phillips openly emulates and references —  Joker suggests that when the leading man loses his mind, it’s an understandable, even natural reaction to an equally mad world. Viewers who aren’t already inclined to see humanity as a seething cesspit may not resonate with that level of cynicism. But to viewers who feel as abused and overlooked as Arthur Fleck, or even who harbor smaller, more rational resentments about society, Joker is a deliberate and fine-tuned provocation and promise: you aren’t alone, the people you hate really are awful, and it would be okay to act against them in any way you want .

joker film review essay

Phillips has made it clear that he doesn’t believe Joker is anything as small and dismissible as a mere comic-book movie. But while his film is grimmer and more harrowing than anything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s offering up a fantasy just as clearly as any superhero wish-fulfillment power trip: the fantasy of being a hero to some, of going from powerlessness to power, of being feared and beloved at the same time. Phillips delivers that message in a self-congratulatory way, largely by setting the film in a world where Arthur has no choice but violence, and no escape but madness. He’s portrayed as a kind of dark truth-teller because he’s learned that the world is a joke and nothing matters.

That’s a fairly adolescent outlook, which Phillips embraces in the same persecution-complex spirit that recently led him to complain that he had to make Joker because the world is now too sensitive and woke for his previous brand of destructive-bro comedy. But Joker would probably be raising much less social concern if it wasn’t such a technically compelling movie, if its final moments weren’t so outsized and joyous and purposefully insane.

Because Joker does play — not just to its most put-upon, angry, repressed viewers — but to the entire audience’s darkest hearts. It shows someone suffering when he lets society have its way with him, and freed when he has his way with society. It shows him weeping alone when he plays by the rules, and dancing wildly in public when he decides to break those rules. The story hurts and harms him, but Phillips suggests in the end that everything he went through was necessary to bring him the power and recognition he deserves. It’s a tempting fantasy, crafted with utter conviction.

Many critics and early viewers have responded to Joker with loathing, because that fantasy is so selfish and solipsistic. By dismissing the world as imbalanced at best, outright malicious at worst, Phillips is enabling his viewers’ worst and most destructive impulses. “I just don’t want to feel so bad anymore,” Arthur says plaintively at one point. He’s a relatable kind of villain, harmless and sad — not an Everyman, but an audience avatar for the downtrodden. And then he models a way to not be harmless anymore. That doesn’t necessarily make Joker a call to action, or an invitation to real-life violence. But it does represent a horrifying form of invitation — not just a call to sympathize with the devil, but a full-blown justification for the hell he creates.

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Joker title image

Review by Brian Eggert October 4, 2019

Joker poster

Miserable and nihilistic, Joker rethinks the iconic Batman villain in terms of a darkly realistic origin story of a murderer. Director Todd Phillips constructs a new version of the Joker whose emergence is preceded by textbook warning signs, including child abuse, an unstable family life, antisocial behavior, and various neuroses. It’s an unusual approach for a character whose chaotic behavior often proves entertaining only because Batman’s order balances it. The character, named Arthur Fleck and played in an uncanny performance by Joaquin Phoenix, lives in a seedier, punishing version of Gotham City, where he feels persecuted by society at large. Following the trajectory of another cinematic psycho, Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (1976), Arthur finally lashes out at the world that has ignored and abused him, becoming a more disturbed and lower-stakes version of the legendary DC Comics villain. The film might be a wreckless an d angry statement about the world today, capable, although not intentionally so, of inciting incels to violence. It might be nothing more than a bleak character study in the footsteps of Christopher Nolan’s  Dark Knight  trilogy, commanded by an impressive performance and incredible formal craftsmanship, in which case it’s a bold piece of studio filmmaking. But Joker ’s desperate need for subversiveness results in a confused portrait of a deranged bad guy, even as it strives for ambiguity. The film leaves the audience to question whether they should cheer for or feel disturbed by its central character. But it’s less a genuinely transgressive approach than one closely modeled on the work of Martin Scorsese, and thus more an exercise in homage than rebellion. Even so, that won’t stop people from aggrandizing it.

Late in the film, the camera glances up at a movie theater marquee—one of the few not showcasing a porno with the name of a Billy Wilder film—advertising Brian De Palma’s Blow Out and Peter Medak’s Zorro: The Gay Blade , dating the film to 1981. The setting is Gotham, whose real-life counterpart has always been New York, which in that same year had a garbage strike, over 2,000 homicides, and over 5,000 rapes. Accordingly, Gotham’s streets are littered with garbage, rampant crime, and newscasters warn of an increasing “super rat” problem (don’t bother inquiring because the film never explains). “Is it just me,” Arthur says, “or is it getting crazier out there?” Cinephiles will recognize the milieu, the urban sprawl of Scorsese’s elusive Taxi Driver ,   where human scum festers and the only source of brightness exists in the delusions of the protagonist. Along with several nods and even lines of dialogue pulled from The King of Comedy (1983), Phillips draws from Scorsese’s wellspring of New York stories about psychopaths who, upon being rejected by the world and those they admire, lash out in criminal ways that gain them the attention they need. But unlike De Palma, whose Blow Out   paid homage by advancing the cinematic language developed by Alfred Hitchcock, Phillips’ brand of reverence uses his inspiration like carbon paper instead of a launchpad. Joker copies Scorsese’s aesthetic and themes, but it does not progress them. 

Indeed, Phillips doesn’t shy away from citing his sources onscreen, and so Joker plays like the product of a talented filmmaker who spent his youth watching and rewatching Scorsese’s body of work. “Someday,” he said to himself, “I’m going to make a movie like that .” And that’s just what Phillips has done, without elevating what Scorsese was trying to say in his grittier 1970s and 1980s output. To be fair, Phillips has made an excellent piece of homage; it’s beautifully shot by d.p. Lawrence Sher, and the period details are nothing short of convincing. But Phillips folds themes from Scorsese into an established intellectual property for a pastiche taffy of cute references and respectful nods. It feels no more thoughtful or ambiguous than Phillips’ previous work, a series of films about immature men caught in a perpetual state of arrested development, from Old School (2003) to three Hangover movies. Lowbrow comedies have been his bread and butter since 2000’s Road Trip , but after producing last year’s A Star is Born and earning some clout with Warner Bros., Phillips has set his sights on something more ambitious. He seems to want to deepen established characters and give them some human dimension, something even darker than The Dark Knight (2008). However, all he’s done is demystify the myth; he’s turned an insane agent of chaos into John Wayne Gacy’s Pogo the Clown.  

joker film review essay

Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck lives in a grungy apartment with his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), who he cares for and dotes upon. He works a thankless job as a clown, aspires to become a stand-up comedian, and occasionally stalks his neighbor (Zazie Beetz), with whom he’s infatuated. But the world has nothing except a long coil of excrement to pinch off on Arthur’s face. Within the first half-hour of Joker , Arthur receives not one but two violent beatings, loses his job, and endures no end of insults and rejections. The second beating, which takes place after a coworker has given him a firearm, results in Arthur shooting down three rich assholes employed by Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). Curiously enough, Arthur’s mother often refers to her glory days long ago as an employee of Gotham’s wealthiest patron, who is also a mayoral candidate. “Those of us who have made something of our lives,” Wayne says on live television, “will always look at those who haven’t and see nothing but clowns.” It’s a remark that incites outrage among the lower classes and builds Arthur, the anonymous clown killer, into a figurehead. After Arthur commits murder (in a sequence recalling The French Connection , again demonstrating Phillips’ affection for New York cinema of the 1970s), an act for which he has no regret, he inadvertently incites a movement, wherein the rich become targets for the repressed and dejected masses—all of whom don clown masks in honor of their perceived liberator. 

The screenplay by Phillips and Scott Silver leaves a meandering breadcrumb trail to Arthur’s mental state. He was institutionalized and now sees a social worker (Sharon Washington) about his mental health. He takes seven prescriptions to keep himself sane. He has a neurological disorder that causes him to laugh-cry when under pressure, resulting in pained cackles and burps that announce themselves like Tourette’s syndrome tics. The specifics of Arthur’s mental condition prove less significant than how they are portrayed. If Joker has little to say outside of reactionary social politics and Scorsese-brand aesthetics, it’s an astounding vehicle for Phoenix’s talent. The actor somehow makes the film urgently compelling, and his body is so wincingly skinny—a quality that Phillips seems to savor in those shots where Phoenix raises his arms to reveal a sunken stomach, protruding ribs, and virtually no muscle mass. The transformation is incredible, and Phoenix’s ability to inhabit a character gives way to scenes of scary, internalized emotion on Arthur’s face—a lightning storm of conflicting expressions, from tears to riotous laughter, all about to burst from the inside of Arthur’s skeletal frame. 

As the film carries on, Arthur’s history and psyche become more critical to the plot, which relies on a series of eye-rolling twists to propel Arthur over sanity’s edge. In a clumsy, Fight Club -esque moment, one character is revealed to be a figment of Arthur’s imagination, and therein, a sign of his growing insanity. He later discovers that his lineage is not what he thought it to be. Catalyst after wretched catalyst builds until, with about 20 minutes left in its two-hour runtime, Joker turns what has become a miserablist experience into a revenge story propelled by insanity. After all, Arthur’s few moments of violence have earned him media attention and followers, including crowds of clown-masked devotees willing to overwhelm, and presumably kill, a cop (Shea Whigham) who accidentally shoots a civilian. Finally, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), the host of a late-night talk show and Arthur’s idol, invites Arthur onto his program to be humiliated—after some video of Arthur’s embarrassing stand-up footage turns him into a laughing stock. It’s the last-ditch moment for Arthur to become Joker, and it’s the most ill-conceived scene in the film. 

joker film review essay

In a way, Joker being modeled after a crazed mass murderer is scarier because it follows the logic of a school shooter or someone with a sniper rifle in a bell tower. In another way, it’s lazier, as though Phillips couldn’t conceive of an intelligent person who transforms into an unhinged supervillain. Instead, Arthur behaves like a disgruntled, lonely person who tells an obvious window-into-my-soul joke: “What do you get when you cross a crazy person with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” The punchline is an act of public violence, a moment that, when seen by the deserted and unhinged, will feel cathartic. Dramatically, Phillips has engineered our empathy for Arthur. We find him at once worthy of our pity and yet his actions are detestable, making his final outburst an insane, murderous victory over those who wronged him. It’s a moment that is exhilarating and maybe even irresponsible. At the same time, the material leaves illogical leaps between the character as Phillips has made him and the requirements of a major motion picture about a famous intellectual property. Why, for instance, would a crowd of hundreds suddenly don masks and praise a madman who performs a violent act? A few handfuls of disturbed individuals devoted to a cult leader, that is believable. But hundreds of masked people suddenly driven to worship Joker like a god? It might seem implausible, except when you consider that people today worship a man with an orange mask and absurd hair despite his crimes (and so perhaps it’s not so unreasonable). 

The controversy surrounding Joker —the worry that the film will incite real-life followers reminiscent of James Holmes—feels over-estimated, if not engineered as a promotional device to manufacture interest. Then again, people will doubtless cling to a film that dramatizes a “Kill the Rich” movement, not because Joker commands them to but because people can be insane. To be sure, certain aspects of the film exist as a mirror of American culture; however, Phillips jams that mirror in our face with an unsubtle hand. By the time Arthur first dons full Joker garb and dances down a long stairway, which before he only ascended at the end of each day as a symbol of his Sisyphus-like slog through life, Phillips resorts to an odd musical queue: Gary Glitters’ “Hey” song, music often played at sporting events. It’s a moment that feels obvious and pandering, just as his Scorsese references are—everything from De Niro’s presence to the recurring image of pantomimed gunshots to the temple from Taxi Driver . Joker might be an entirely thankless and dramatically unrewarding experience without Phoenix’s presence, whose sheer talent allows the viewer to endure the proceedings, smiling through the pain as its main character does, if only for the pleasure of watching this actor do his thing with unwavering commitment. The rest is just poking and prodding to garner a reaction, and mistaking such provocations for having something profound or meaningful to say.   


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Movie Review "Joker"

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T here was so much controversy surrounding the newly released "Joker" movie, directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix, that it was a must-see. With all the twists, turns and the array of emotions felt, I would give this movie an 8.5/10.

A Brief Summary

"Joker" introduces us to his origin story. We follow the life of Arthur Fleck, who we don't know is the Joker until the very end of the movie.

Fleck is a struggling clown who is terrorized daily on the streets, while trying to do his job as a sign holder. He struggles to make a living because he has to take care of his sick mother and has trouble holding on to the low paying job he does have. 

Throughout the movie we see how most of Gotham City is struggling from its failing economy. Fleck is struggling just as much as the rest of them — maybe even worse with his mental illness.

We follow Fleck's journey as he tries to make a living as a comedian while also trying to figure out where he came from. Between all the major twists and turns, the audience gets to see how his mental illness affects his daily life and how it affects how people interact with him.

Major Themes

"Joker" can be seen as a very controversial movie based on how it can make the viewers sympathize with Fleck, even though he does terrible things.

Throughout the movie, we see how Fleck struggles through daily life and how he gets beaten up and laughed at. We also see how society has failed the lower classes. The economy is affecting a lot of businesses, such as those to help people with mental illnesses or give jobs to people that need them. With these institutions closing, it affects many people including Arthur Fleck. This starts to send him on a downward spiral. As an audience we are brought back to reality when the sympathy we feel is tested because some of his actions are so insane.

There is a turning point in the movie where Fleck kills three wealthy business men on a train. The men had been picking on him and harassing him when Fleck decides to take extreme measures.

Fleck killed them to show that they could not pick on him, but it also became a message to the bigger corporations that the lower class was tired of what they have been doing to the economy. This leads to the idea of starting a revolution against the upper class, which is what Fleck ends up doing.

With his actions of killing three wealthy businessmen, uniting the lower class and starting protests around the city for change, this makes Fleck an unknown hero in the community. It makes him feel like what he did was okay when really, it wasn't. The response he received from the public might have been the reason that the situation escalated the way it did.

(Major Spoilers Ahead)

In one of the last scenes, Fleck wakes up after a car accident surrounded by protestors who are cheering him on. This is the first time we see the majority of the public praising him and calling him Joker.

The Joker had just killed Murray Franklin on live TV and the protesters were rallying together because they believed in what Joker was doing and what he stood for. They believe he stood for change and they want to put a stop to how the upper class has been running things. Joker gives them a voice to be heard.

At the end we see him dancing to the crowd which was another common occurrence throughout the movie. He felt a sense of accomplishment for what he did, and the protestors were just there to confirm that for him.

The reason that Fleck does what he does is because he feels the injustice that is going on in Gotham City. The upper class is running the show, but leaving the lower class behind. This affects Fleck's way of life and it affects everyone he sees around him. He wants to save what is falling apart, while trying to keep from falling apart himself. But, what he uses to get his points across are not okay and he breaks the law many times to do so. These drastic measures are what bring the lower class together and in the end put the Joker on top.

"Joker" is the first movie that gives the audience a look at one of Joker's origin stories. The other times we see the Joker portrayed was when he was the villain in the Batman movies or "Suicide Squad."

Over the years we have seen many different Jokers with Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger and more recently Jared Leto. All of these Jokers have been very unique, and each actor has made that character their own. Most of these movies typically revolved around Batman. The difference we see in Joaquin Phoenix's Joker, that makes his rendition unique, is that he is not the Joker when we first meet him, and he has nothing to do with Batman. He is his own person.

What this movie does so well is that it gives the audience a new perspective on his life. It makes the audience question their opinion of the Joker. The audience leaves the theater still confused because nobody really knows what was real or what was a part of Arthur Fleck's imagination.

Every other rendition of the Joker has made it very clear that the Joker is a bad guy. This new movie lets the audience in on his early life, which then makes us question these ideals we had before.

Final Thoughts

There has been no talk about this being a collection of movies, which might be a good thing. As a stand alone film, it gives the audience something to think about when they leave the theater. It makes the audience wonder what will happen next when they show a teaser of a young Bruce Wayne.

joker film review essay


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    As social commentary, “Joker” is pernicious garbage. But besides the wacky pleasures of Phoenix’s performance, it also displays some major movie studio core competencies, in a not dissimilar way to what “A Star Is Born” presented last year. ( Bradley Cooper is a producer.)

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    Joker might be an entirely thankless and dramatically unrewarding experience without Phoenix’s presence, whose sheer talent allows the viewer to endure the proceedings, smiling through the pain as its main character does, if only for the pleasure of watching this actor do his thing with unwavering commitment.

  6. Movie Review "Joker"

    "Joker" can be seen as a very controversial movie based on how it can make the viewers sympathize with Fleck, even though he does terrible things. Throughout the movie, we see how Fleck struggles through daily life and how he gets beaten up and laughed at. We also see how society has failed the lower classes.