October Countdown: Joker (2019)

Our first review for 2019’s October Countdown involves a film that’s not quite horror—though it does feature suspense, a few frights, and a title character whom many would consider a monster.

Certainly, Joker seems suited to its October release date.

Title: “Joker”

Cast and Crew

Director: Tod Phillips
Writer: Scott Silver

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck / Joker
Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin
Zazie Beetz as Sophie Dumond
Frances Conroy as Penny Fleck
Brett Cullen as Thomas Wayne
Douglas Hodge as Alfred Pennyworth
Shea Whigham as Detective Burke
Bill Camp as Detective Garrity
Glenn Fleshler as Randall
Leigh Gill as Gary
Josh Pais as Hoyt Vaughn
Rocco Luna as GiGi Dumond
Marc Maron as Gene Ufland
Sondra James as Dr. Sally
Murphy Guyer as Barry O’Donnell
Dante Pereira-Olson as Bruce Wayne
Carrie Louise Putrello as Martha Wayne
Sharon Washington as Social Worker
Hannah Gross as Young Penny
Frank Wood as Dr. Stoner
Brian Tyree Henry as Carl the Arkham Clerk
April Grace as Arkham Psychiatrist
Carl Lundstedt, Michael Benz, and Ben Warheit as Subway Guys

Released: October 4, 2019


We’re in Gotham City, this time stylized as late 1970s/early 1980s New York with the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike thrown in for foul measure. A profoundly disturbed, not especially likeable man get beaten down by even less likeable men, and becomes a killer.

High Points

Joaquin Phoenix, gives an outstanding performance, different from Heath Ledger’s or Jack Nicolson’s, but memorable and disturbingly plausible. Without the name-checking of DC references and the involvement of the Wayne Family (who could have been called anything here), the film might have been very much its own movie, a sort of killer clown take on Falling Down.

But then, it wouldn’t have received quite so much attention.

Low Points

I debated putting spoiler tags on this one, so proceed with caution.

During the film’s climactic sequence, the Wayne Family darts out of a movie theatre and into a dark alley. The camera leaves the main action and follows them, where we witness the killing of Thomas Wayne and his wife— I forget her name—right in front of their son, Bruce! The killer even takes what he can of Mrs. Wayne’s pearl necklace, as the rest fall dramatically to the pavement. I’ll just bet that’s why Bruce Wayne becomes Batman! Traumatized by this event, lil Wayne doubtless trains himself to be a master detective and fighter, and then adopts his bat persona! Wow, I’m glad this move decided to show that. I mean, surely I can’t be the only one who didn’t know about Batman’s origin, given DC’s reluctance to depict this particular event. Also, the manner in which the Waynes themselves and Batman’s origin have been reconceptualized adds a dark, disturbing layer to his future career as a vigilante superhero. Wow, Batman will be a dark knight in a dark world! At the very least, the next Batman definitely won’t be the fun, campy Batman of the old 1960s TV series!

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6 This film gives us Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, and the Death Wish franchise as a supervillain origin, with elements of Bernhard Goetz and several more recent political developments. It gains a point for going further than previous movies based on mainstream superhero comics—and then loses it again, for sidetracking and making us sit through the death of the Waynes, again.

Acting: 6/6 The performances elevate this movie above a problematic script. You won’t like many characters in this film (or perhaps any characters in this film), but no one can deny the quality of the acting. This film barely qualifies as a comic-book movie, and even its more over-the-top flourishes may exist only in its protagonist’s dark imagination.

Effects 5/6 The film features impressive visuals….

Production: 6/6 ….immersing us in a filthy city from a dark, recent past.

Story: 4/6 Joker serves up an uneven story. Its real-world elements, and its questioning of its own internal reality, work powerfully, if not always comfortably. The attempt to make Joker a part of DC’s Gotham City work less effectively. It doesn’t want to be a part of a larger universe, but it gestures to that larger universe, often in ways that only make sense if you know it.

Emotional Response 4/6

Overall 4/6 DC has failed to create an interconnected, coherent superhero universe in the manner of Marvel, but they have turned out a a few interesting films that don’t worry about continuity any more than comics once had. With this movie, however, they create an antihero, intentionally or not, who functions as a wish-fulfillment for mass shooters and disenfranchised terrorists. I think concerns about this move encouraging violence seem excessive, but I cannot say I left the theatre feeling especially happy about some of the film’s choices.

In total, Joker receives 32/42

October 5: The Joker (2019)
October 12: Hail, Satan? (2019)
October 19: One Cut of the Dead (2019)
October 26: Midsommar (2019)
October 31: Judging from our votes thus far, we’ll be reviewing three different incarnations of The Cat and the Canary.

6 replies on “October Countdown: Joker (2019)”

  1. I have seen mostly rave reviews for this film. I’m kinda shocked the score is so low. Note: I skipped the low point since you didn’t spoiler tag it.

    Although the “Wayne’s die again” bit, though very predictable should have had spoiler tags too.

    However, regarding this movie, I am VERY pissed at the mainstream media response to it. There were members of the media “warning” about possible violence, where their “warnings” were nothing more than open calls to disturbed people to take action in exchange for media notoriety. It was a slimy and sickening thing for them to do.

    • In the wake of past violence (including the Dark Knight shooting), I think some outlets overreacted to this movie, because it asks us to identify with a deranged killer. That isn’t exactly new, however.

      The low point’s spoiler tag reference is sarcasm, if you read further, and, as you note, spoilered again under “Originality.” I mean, does anyone left on earth not know that Thomas and Martha Wayne die in that alley?

      As for the reviews, they’re actually mixed: the Critics Rating at Rottentomatoes currently stands at 69% positive. Glancing over them now, a number of the reviews seem to say what I’ve said: great acting, interesting concept, uneven execution. I gave it top marks for Acting and Production. I was less impressed by other elements. As always, other viewers may see it differently.

      Incidentally, next week’s film also centers on a character with whom not everyone will want to sympathize….

      • Quick question. By the end is it clear that the Joker is the Chaotic Evil that the character has always been?

        My expectation at the end is that the Joker’s evil be irredeemable. Because any less and he hasn’t really become …. The Joker.

        • Very little is morally clear in this movie. What’s “evil” when the film’s world has so little counterbalancing “good?” I would say that he’s evil with the propensity to be chaotic. Or maybe he’s just chaotic with a strong tendency towards what we would call evil.

    • As someone that lives not far from Aurora, where the theater shooting occurred, and Columbine High School, I cannot stress how problematic copycats are. They just had a debate on whether or not to tear down Columbine HS because so many copycats and sick people flock to it as “special place”.

      I’m fine with violence in movies, but we, as a society, need to start dealing with the mentally ill around us. Maybe the media blew it up, maybe they didn’t. There wasn’t a shooting, so we can claim the latter. If one had happened, they would have be prescient. But from my vantage point, this is a real concern and a real problem that we are facing as a country.

      • You’re claiming that the media didn’t blow the premier of Joker out of proportion because there wasn’t and attack?!?

        No, as far as I’m concerned they were openly auditioning for someone to play the copycat part.

        The media has annihilated its trust over the past many years. They were not running the constant stories of warning out of concern, they were running them to generate fear. I do not condemn some of the police forces that came out for the showings for the public’s protection, that is their job. But the media wasn’t trying to protect anyone, they wanted people in danger. “They can tell you about plane crash with a gleam in their eye. It’s interesting when people die. Give us dirty laundry.”

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