By Bradley Sutherland (Originally posted on Facebook October 5, 2019)
Tell me a story. Don’t tell me what the story is about. The greatest thing about Joker, aside from Phoenix’s performance, is that it doesn’t tell you exactly how you’re supposed to feel and when you’re supposed to feel it. It doesn’t come out and say, “This is my heavy-handed, pandering, woke-ass comment on the world around me. Please leave this movie thinking about no more than exactly this. Just this. No critical thinking—no work of any kind—will be required of you upon viewing this movie. It is simply about THIS, and you’re supposed to feel THAT.”
One of the most annoying things about Joker is how the debate was shaped by critics before anyone actually saw the movie. A popular criticism was how the movie wasn’t about anything. Another was that there was too much Joker.
Before discussing the former, I will only say about the latter that it be silly as shit. The Joker is one of the most intriguing characters in all of fiction, and he is finally on center stage, uniquely portrayed by one of the great actors of our time. That’s why everyone paid to go see the movie. I can almost certainly assure you that you won’t find yourself sitting through this movie wondering what any of the other characters are up to. It’s about one person’s descent into madness, and it’s incredible (and, yes, disturbing) to watch. The notion that there is too much Joker in a movie called Joker focusing on how someone might be able to become the Joker is baffling at best.
As far as the movie not being about anything…
It doesn’t take too long into Joker to realize that much of the pre-release debate about this movie is a debate about a movie that actually doesn’t exist. The Joker is about a lot. I think. And that’s what’s so dope about it—you don’t really know. Part of me thinks I know exactly what happened and what it’s all about. Part of me has no idea. And I can’t think of a recent movie, certainly one as popular as Joker, that has done that to me in the last ten years.
Joker doesn’t spoon-feed any of it to you. It doesn’t hold your hand. Instead, it introduces a handful of notions as to why the Joker is who he is and leaves it up to the audience to decide what to think about it. The movie doesn’t really lean one way or the other, and for some reason, that seems to be too much for some critics to handle. It doesn’t check the boxes of a certain camp, and it can’t be pinned down, so they interpret it as not being about anything because Joker doesn’t come out and tell you what it’s all about.
I think this is in large part because we’ve been conditioned to view art through the Lens of Woke, where every story, every creation, has to be making a hyper relevant, political commentary of sorts. In turn, this affects how stories are told, where a larger commentary is central to the creation instead of deep and intriguing characters showing us unique and interesting stories. I’ve always felt larger themes should be a biproduct of the story you’re telling—not the central force behind it.
In the popcorn movies, it often comes across as pandering (i.e. Hollywood appealing to the woke for money versus actually being woke themselves; yes, Hollywood still be sexist, regardless of how triumphant they make the music when Captain Marvel first appears to rescue RBJ in Endgame). In more indie-type films, it results in shallow characters and boring plots. Joker doesn’t suffer from these problems, and that seems to be the problem for many critics. It spends all its energy on developing its titular character and subtly flirts with different reasons as to why he develops in the way that he does. It’s not trying to do any more, and it shouldn’t have to. Ironically, however, the larger commentary Joker DOES make is super woke AF… it’s just not spelling it all out in the sky with smoke and a plane, patting itself on the back while doing so. A dangerous flying maneuver indeed.
Finally, the Joker character always has and always will be an unreliable narrator, which is one of his many captivating traits. And if you’re not a Batman nerd, it’s fair to say you might not have known this about him going into Joker. However, the only obvious thing this movie does is remind you that the Joker is indeed an unreliable narrator. From there, it shouldn’t be any surprise, then, that you may find yourself at the end of the movie asking yourself, “What really happened?” or, “What did I just watch? “ or, “So, like, what the fuck was this movie even about?”
AND THAT’S OKAY.
You’re even allowed to change your mind. I’ll probably hate this fucking movie come Monday.
But I can’t stop thinking about it, and I absolutely love the fact that I have to do some critical thinking in trying to digest what I just saw. How often does that happen anymore? Also, get off my lawn.
This is all not to say that if you don’t like it, you’re just not getting it, etc. I can totally see how this movie will still be divisive or how some won’t like it. But I guarantee you will take it home with you. As a creator, this would excite me. So many people are interpreting the movie in so many different ways. A story that is “not about anything” simply does not have this effect.
Joker is a movie that exists in the gray, as does pretty much everything fucking else in this world. There’s nothing black or white about this movie, which is why so much of the black and white debate surrounding it before its release is so off the mark and simple minded.
If you still need something definitive, however, I can give you two examples of such: 1) Phoenix’s performance is truly great. 2) You will walk away from the movie with a completely different interpretation than many others who saw it with you, and none of those interpretations will be wrong. That’s a far more profound experience than being told what you just saw and exactly how you should be reacting to it.
Listen to our newest podcast on the Joker and the snacks it inspired: https://soundcloud.com/user-78960595/023-joker