Well. This was a movie.
I watched Joker earlier today and I'm still kind of processing what I saw. It's something of a difficult thing to work through. Because of that, and because of the structure, it's almost impossible to review this movie without spoilers. But, briefly, a spoiler-free review first:
This is a heartbreaking character study of a man on the edge falling over. Much has been written about how it's drawing from King of Comedy or Taxi Driver, but the movie I kept thinking of was Falling Down. However you slice it though, this is a very uncomfortable movie to watch, but it's just breathtaking and amazing. The other movie I kept thinking of was Requiem For a Dream. Yeah, this movie is a bit of a gut-punch. It's very, very good, but it's a tough sit at times. You've been warned. This also isn't so much a comic book movie as a psychological horror movie.
Now for more depth. Spoilers ahead and sprinkled throughout.
Right from the opening, you know you're in for a strange ride. Literally. Before the movie really even starts, we get the old Warner Bros. icon and it opens like a movie from the 80s. Which is fitting as it's set there. Also, after our opening scene setting the stage -- including a garbage strike that just hovers over the whole movie, almost reminiscent of the game Dishonored -- we get the title of the movie, just in massive block letters, almost filling the screen; almost like the horrorshow that was Funny Games.
The movie continues just cataloguing all the horribleness of Arthur's life. Little bits and flashes of things maybe, possibly, going well only for the rug to be yanked out from under him. We see his visit to his state mandated psychologist, his crummy job, his invalid mother, and how easy he slips in and out of fantasy. We also see that Arthur smokes. A lot. Something I haven't seen anyone touch on is the smoking. I think it's more than just Hollywood coding that he's a bad person because smoking. We know that he has mental issues (more on that in a minute), we know that he's on medication, and he clearly thinks the meds aren't especially effective as he asks for an increased dose (only to be told that he's on 7, and that should be enough). Regardless, the point is, he's self-medicating because the meds really aren't working. It didn't fully click for me until the end, but I think that's something they were going for. And I hope that's the case, because it's one of the few really subtle things in the movie, sadly.
Speaking of Arthur's mental issues, the movie seems unsure if it's because he was born with an imbalance because of his similarly unbalanced mother, or because of the brain trauma he received as a kid. His uncontrollable laughter (which is a very real disorder: pseudobulbar affect) is very likely because of the trauma, but the movie is vague about the rest. Further, giving the Joker PBA somewhat grounds him and makes for some horribly uncomfortable, almost heartbreaking, scenes. I don't do well with movies that lean heavily on uncomfortable situations (Meet The Parents was slow torture for me), but this movie wields those scenes like a scalpel. I don't think anyone can watch his attempts at standup without squirming. Personally, I had to close my eyes and cover my ears for that scene, it was that bad. And then we get callbacks to it later in the movie. It's like a knife to the gut, and it's very well done.
Less well done is the resolution to the whole... situation... with Sophie, his girlfriend. Or, "girlfriend". So, there's plenty of hints that this might be part of his fantasy life as them being together makes very little sense in how Actual People Actually Act, especially considering how he bombed at the comedy club. The film outright confirms it in a very good scene as the film is charging towards its climax. After Arthur has pretty much completely snapped and been subsumed by the Joker, he walks down the hall to Sophie's apartment and lets himself in. She sees him in her living room, looking shocked to see him, asking why he's there and saying something like "You... you're from down the hall, right? Um... Arthur was it?" Great, good. We know she wasn't really his girlfriend. But then the movie has to be completely explicit by flashing back to the scenes with them together and having her fade out of each one. Nicely shot, but completely unnecessary. We already understood movie. She was a minor character, not Tyler Durden.
Although, I didn't think about it until now, but do you think he killed her? I don't, but...
After that scene, we plow headlong into the climax which is both incredibly powerful, but also somewhat mishandled. On the one hand, we have Joker saying that he's apolitical, and has no opinion on the rage that's building in the city. The social unrest that's building started with the garbage strike and catalyzed by his murders in the beginning of the movie. For all the handwringing of this being some kind of rallying point for INCELs or MGTOWs, it's really more dealing with class warfare and Occupy Wall Street than SJWs and cancel culture ruining things. Feel free to continue to ignore the stupid clickbait articles written by people that clearly haven't seen it (also, ignore the pearl-clutching about Gary Glitter and the use of Rock n Roll Part 2: he's not getting any royalties). That said, despite him claiming to have no interest in the politics of what's going on, he gives a long speech when he's on the Tonight Show stand-in about just that sort of thing. About what's socially acceptable and what isn't, what's humor and what isn't, and the horrible way the mentally ill are treated. Hell, he's yelling his political thesis when he shoots Robert De Niro's Murray Franklin in the face. Make up your mind, movie. Yes, he's insane, but it just feels like the screenwriter lecturing through his character. It doesn't ruin the movie, but it's not well placed. It's not a bad speech, it just feels unearned.
This is the spark that's needed to start a full-on riot, sending the city into eat-the-rich chaos. It also adds a completely unnecessary scene of Bruce Wayne's parents getting killed (was that a studio mandate? It felt completely out of place) and then... he's in Arkham.
Was the whole thing a delusion? Was he just arrested again off camera? Was he never released (his earlier conversations with his case worker imply that he was institutionalized at some point).?
Honestly, the idea of it all being a delusion is kind of interesting. Perhaps he was just unstable and went full on psychotic because of events that never actually happened. This movie is clearly inspired by The Killing Joke, and the idea that he sort of drove himself completely insane is intriguing. But I'm probably reading too much into things.
This is a helluva movie. I'm not sure it's one I could watch again, but at the same time, I'm glad I watched it. It's a very difficult movie to watch. Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely brilliant and effortlessly carries the movie on his frightfully thin back. Honestly, I almost wish this movie was just a character story and wasn't tied to the Joker at all. It really works just fine as an exploration of one man's descent into psychosis and all the Batman stuff (limited as it is) feels superfluous.
A tough film to watch, a tough film to review, a chilling, horrifying, unflinching film. Worth watching if you're willing to brave it.