Netflix movie of the day: Joaquin Phoenix is creepy and compelling in the controversy-laced Joker

Movie of the Day

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With excitement building towards the October release of Joker: Folie A Deux (read our Joker 2 trailer breakdown article while you’re here), now’s as good a time to watch – or re-watch – its 2019 predecessor. 

The Joaquin Phoenix-starring film, which reinvented the legendary DC supervillain as a everyman struggling with mental health issues, was the first R-rated movie to ever amass $1 billion at the worldwide box office. And, while it was a critical and commercial success, the multi-award-winning flick – which circled the now-defunct DC Extended Universe (DCEU) but wasn’t actually part of its make-up (pun intended) – wasn’t without controversy upon release.

Now that the hype and hot takes have died down, what’s left to say about a film that we controversially labeled one of the best superhero movies ever? Joker is still a fascinating albeit flawed take on the popular genre and a movie with a message that isn’t necessarily the one it intended to deliver.

For anyone who somehow missed it almost five years ago: Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a failed comedian living in Gotham City, who slowly finds himself falling through the cracks of a failing system amid his deteriorating mental health and a journey that leads to a life of crime. It’s an origin story that mixes the New York of Taxi Driver with the dreary city made famous by Batman comic books and movies, and it ends up falling somewhere between the two.

Joaquin Phoenix is exceptional, but Joker’s problems persist

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in the Joker movie

2019’s Joker earned Joaquin Phoenix numerous gongs on the 2020 awards circuit. (Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Without giving anything significant away about its twisty and dreamscape-style plot, Joker was a hit among fans and critics alike, although it wasn’t without its detractors.

Empire loved it, with the well-known entertainment publication giving it the full five stars. “Bold, devastating and utterly beautiful,” its writer noted, “[director] Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix have not just reimagined one of the most iconic villains in cinema history, but reimagined the comic book movie itself”. In sharp contrast, only gave it two stars, saying that it was overly violent, self-important and self-indulgent, adding: “As social commentary, Joker is pernicious garbage.”

Roger Ebert’s reviewer did suggest, however, that Phoenix’s compelling performance and the film’s gorgeous score were well worth the admission face. The New Yorker similarly praised Phoenix, saying: “His face may get the greasepaint, but it’s his whole body, coiled upon itself like a spring of flesh, from which the movie’s energy is released.”

The New York Times was far less unimpressed, calling it “an empty, foggy exercise in second-hand style and second-rate philosophizing” and suggesting that in its attempts to humanize a terrible man it ended up saying a lot about white supremacy. Writing for the same newspaper, Lawrence Ware wrote that “what the film wants to say – about mental illness or class divisions in society – is not as interesting as what it accidentally says about whiteness. For it is essentially a depiction of what happens when white supremacy is left unchecked.”

And that’s essentially most people’s bug bear with Joker. Rightly or wrongly, it became more than just a movie  indeed, it became part of the culture wars; its portrayal of male insecurity and male violence leading many to question whether it was just a portrayal of that violence or if it was a celebration of it. It’s a debate we’ve heard before – the same was said of 1976’s Taxi Driver – but it felt particularly timely with the newspapers full of very real male violence and aggression. For some, Joker felt like a exploratory rehash of similar societal themes and, as discussion worthy as they are, Joker continues to be a divisive film five years on from its initial release as a result of its uncomfortably subject matter.

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