Bullet Train and The Princess are two recent releases that could serve as a double feature for all they have in common. Both movies prioritize fun above all else, both of them feature stylized violence and bloodshed, both of them have a perverse sense of humor, and both of them feature young actress Joey King (The Kissing Booth, Wish Upon), coincidentally playing the listed roles of Prince and The Princess. What more do you need for this combo? If you are a fan of Bullet Train, you’ll likely be a fan of The Princess, and vice versa, because both of them are exactly as advertised. They’re wild, whimsically violent, but succeed with nimble action construction, bizarre and engaging characters, and high energy that sparks fun escapist entertainment.
Bullet Train is set almost entirely on a speeding bullet train in Tokyo, and we follow a group of hired killers, mercenaries, and generally nasty people all sharing one very fast locomotive. “Ladybug” (Brad Pitt) is a reformed hitman who only takes snatch-and-grab gigs as he’s trying to better himself with therapy and meditation. He’s meant to grab a briefcase of money and get off the train. Naturally, things don’t go as smoothly as planned. Onboard the train are “Lemon” (Brian Tyree Hill) and “Tangerine” (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who have the briefcase in their possession along with the prodigal son (Logan Lerman) of a scary Yakuza boss known as “The White Death.” Also on board is Kimura (Andrew Koji) seeking to find the person responsible for pushing his child off a rooftop, Prince (Joey King) using her diminutive stature to trick unsuspecting men, the Wolf (Bad Bunny) seeking out the person responsible for the death of his bride, and several other masked killers looking to up the ante. Characters will clash, many will die, and “The White Death” will be appeased by the end, coming to collect a blood debt from all.
Bullet Train was, blissfully, everything I was needing it to be. It’s a universe familiar to fans of Quentin Tarantino and especially Guy Ritchie, with colorful and threatening characters with large personalities and quirks colliding in unexpected and violent ways. I’ve seen so many Tarantino knock-offs, and Tarantino knock-off knock-offs, so I appreciate when someone is able to understand what it takes to succeed on this unique playing field. Screenwriter Zak Olkewicz (Fear Street: 1978) knows how to sharpen the kind of off-the-cuff banter that makes these movies excel, with space given for the characters to make a sizable impression. There needs to be time to get to know them, their quirks and faults, and then send them all running at one another at cross-purposes, interacting in fun ways that lend to one character screwing something up for another. There’s about a dozen characters dropped upon us, and just about everyone gets a flashback or introduction set piece, sometimes more, sometimes extensions of previous flashbacks, sometimes extensions from alternate perspectives. Part of the fun is just seeing how the different characters relate to one another, so there is a period of time where the mask has to eventually drop, and the reveal needs to be worthwhile. It’s a lot, and Bullet Train gleefully trades in excess upon excess all in the name of chasing after a good time, and if you connect on its zany and breezy wavelength of reckless violence and dark humor, then you shall be happy for the ride.
The movie is constantly reshuffling and transforming, allowing it to hyperextend into whatever shape it necessitates before contorting back to its next phase. This malleability makes the movie far more responsive, sometimes overlapping, and it provides an extra level of energy. It’s reminiscent of Snatch, my favorite of the Ricthie cockney crime capers, where the story zigged and zagged through linear time, providing answers to different stacked questions. I won’t say the characters are as distinct as Snatch, but Olkewicz takes his time to introduce each with relish. Pitt may be the marketable star of the movie, at least as far as advertising is concerned, but it’s really much more of an ensemble, and one anchored by Lemon and Tangerine. Their droll, snappy banter really cements their long-term relationship almost like a screwball romance. They end up becoming, strangely, the heart of the movie, if one were to suggest a movie with an entire wedding party vomiting their guts to death had a beating heart. Their exact connection and genuine affection for one another, even when they’re driving one another mad, is one of the film’s many surprises as it zooms ahead. There are fun cameos, and some unexpected abrupt deaths, but Bullet Train works because of the entertainment of the kooky killer characters. I enjoyed that one character’s obsession, namely likening people to Thomas the Tank Engine avatars, has a personal connection but actually leads to some ironic turns. Not every set-up has the best payoff (Chekov’s toilet snake comes to shockingly little) or resolution (why wasn’t the snooping conductor thrown back in or given a revelation?) but with so many characters criss-crossing, so many goofy asides and cul-de-sacs, and so much bloody mayhem, there’s a steady stream of fun, satisfying payoffs and retribution until the mid-credits sequence.
To me, the water bottle symbolizes Bullet Train at its best and worst. After two hours of multiple characters and their out-of-order flashbacks shuffling for dominance, we get an inanimate object with its own flashback. It’s a goofy and superfluous addition, as the water bottle has served as a plot device but has served its ultimate plot purpose already, so seeing its entire history offers no new information that the audience didn’t already have. However, what it does is show the movie from the perspective of this bottle, and many sequences are reframed from the bottle’s rigid point of view. It made me think about how after they got their shot setups, someone on staff would then call out, “Okay, we need the water bottle POV shot now,” and they would film that. I appreciate the effort for something this fleeting and silly. They didn’t need to put in this flashback or this level of attention to an object that ultimately just gets thrown at a guy’s head. However, it’s the misdirect, the ridiculous inclusion on top of the others, and the ramping of energy that made me smile, even as little else came out of it. I appreciated the showmanship. For me, this is emblematic of the movie as a whole, an overload of style and energy just for the fleeting hell of it.
Under the direction of David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2), the action is as fun and energetic as the colorful characters. Leitch has become one of the best modern directors of action movies. The hand-to-hand combat is refreshing and makes use of close quarter combat demands. I enjoyed that the two participants in a fight are trying to sneak in quick moves without getting caught by an older lady who demands quiet in the quiet train car. I enjoyed the zany flashback where Tangerine and Lemon recount to the camera and dispute the number of men killed on a previous job. With a character cursed with bad luck, it provides opportunities to have fun with accidents and bad timing, which Leitch works into different action set-ups and setbacks. Even when the movie literally goes off the rails and becomes a big cartoon, Leitch finds ways to marry the big tone in such a manner that the ridiculous doesn’t prove off-putting. When characters are swinging samurai swords in slow-mo, while a Japanese version of “Holding Out For a Hero” is pumping on the soundtrack, I just sat back and soaked up the deliciously disposable fun times.
The plot of The Princess is as straightforward as Bullet Train is knotty. The Princess (Joey King) of a fantasy kingdom is chained at the very top of a castle tower. Her captor, Julius (Dominic Cooper), has imprisoned her family and plans to wed the princess and become king. The princess, however, has other plans. Thanks to her martial arts and weapon training, she breaks free and becomes a one-woman wrecking crew as she descends the tower floors to freedom.
I was genuinely surprised at how well developed and exciting the action sequences were. The Princess shares more in common with The Raid than anything by the Grimms. The script by Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton follows the model of a video game; every new floor is a literal new level with a new boss or new objective to be achieved to advance to the next level. The simplicity of the premise is refreshing, and the movie doesn’t waste any time ramping things up. Blood is shed within the first few minutes and it doesn’t let up. What I really appreciated was how well constructed each new action set piece was. There’s variety and specification that challenges our heroine, who is powerful but still not all-powerful and bereft of vulnerability. Each new encounter forces our protagonist to think through a different application of skills. There’s a situation that involves overpowering a larger and stronger man, a situation trying to wound a fully armored man, a situation battling two men, then even more, a situation with men charging into the battle and having to escape to a safer environment, a situation where she has to swing along the outside of the castle to enter a different room, a situation involving stealth, and many others, but each requires something different and thus each proves to flesh out our main character and her capabilities and problem-solving acumen. It’s always a pleasure to watch smart people overcome challenges in fun and smart ways, and The Princess has this formula down. I was worried the movie might get repetitive with its video game level design, but each new challenge is an opportunity to dazzle and enlighten us about our John Wick-esque fighter.
That’s probably the best comparison, the John Wick franchise, because it’s a series of movies that is defined by the thrills of its fight choreography and action set pieces. That’s it. The world has some interesting flourishes but the draw is the fight scenes and the pleasure of watching professionals operating at such a high level and with demonstrations that allow us to better immerse and appreciate the artistry of the fighting. And it’s good here. The impressive choreography has a really nice A-to-B propulsion, with each move connecting to the next to tell its own story of countermoves and adjustment. I really appreciated how the specific geography of each location is incorporated into the action, whether that be as a hindrance or an assistance to the fighting. It makes the sequences more meaningful and better developed. It’s also a movie that understands that if you give your villains specialized weapons, they better use them in fun or nasty ways. If all you’re looking for is imaginative, bloody, and brutal fighting, The Princess delivers it all. Credit also to King for throwing herself completely into the role. She effortlessly executes complicated fight moves and swordplay during long takes. You can tell she’s having a blast being a badass. Think of The Princess like a feminist version of The Raid or an upside-down version of Dredd (“Instead of fighting up, this character fights her way… down.”).
The Princess could have made more social statements but its very conceit is a feminist reworking of outdated fantasy tropes, so I don’t mind that it’s a streamlined action movie with a blunt yet obvious point. The familiar story tells us that these damsels in distress are the maidens in need of rescuing (“Sorry, our princess is in another castle” and the like), so just having the princess be her own champion is a simple yet satisfying subversion. This is an action movie and less one on politics; however, it’s a movie that cannot help from being political because it’s upsetting the expected social norms, that women are docile and weaker and at the whims of men. The Princess isn’t breaking new ground here. There have been plenty of movies that re-contextualized the feminine roles of old legends and folk tales and made them more capable and strong and fierce. That doesn’t mean there’s any less enjoyment watching our princess take down one leering man after another. It’s the appeal of the underdog who makes men pay dearly for underestimating her. These repeated interactions and bloody comeuppance speak about as well as necessary for this kind of movie. I doubt things would have radically improved if one of the characters broke into a treatise on the misapplication of gender roles. It’s a woman beating the stuffing out of creepy and lascivious misogynists. For this movie, that’s more than enough to keep me watching.
Where The Princess starts to lose itself is once it shifts into its final act and abandons its formula. I can understand wanting to shake things up so the viewer doesn’t get lulled into complacency, but because the sequences were, beforehand, varied, my interest was not lagging. During this final stretch, the titular princess leads a squad to take down the baddies, and the movie becomes any other number of similar fantasy action movies. The enjoyable fight choreography is still present, but it feels like a rush to clear everything in comparison to the methodical floor-by-floor clearing from before. I wish the filmmakers had merely held steady with their plot rather than throwing things out and relying upon a grand team-up revolutionary raid. There’s also a sudden shift that throws out the rationale for keeping the princess alive. The bad guy just shrugs and says, “Forget it, I’ll find a replacement,” and it feels too arbitrary of an escalation. If he could do this, why was he so insistent for the first hour that she not be killed? It’s not a bad ending or one that ruins the movie but it’s definitely a downshift from the action excitement highs from before.
The Princess and Bullet Train are both frantic, over-the-top, cartoonishly violent, while still understanding how to effectively sell their escapist mayhem. We need to be dazzled by the action sequences and have them be meaningful (check), we need weird and interesting characters that we want to root for or watch bumble onscreen (check), we need payoffs that feel rewarding (check), we need an onslaught of style and attitude (check), and we need, above all else, fun and surprises (check). Neither of these movies is going to qualify as one of the best movies of the year. That’s just not the kind of experience either is shooting for. However, they may be some of the best fun you have with movies for 2022, and in a world in short order of fun, that’s plenty.
Bullet Train: B
The Princess: B
Even though it’s based on a popular series of children’s books, if you’ve seen Zootopia, you’ve seen the better version of The Bad Guys. As far as entertainment aimed at the wee ones, you can certainly do worse. It’s brisk, silly, and the animation is quite enjoyable, adding hand-drawn overlays and accents that really make the images pop and provide additional, gratifying textures. The story, on the other hand, is the same old-same old. We have a group of “scary animals” in a world where anthropomorphized creatures walk side-by-side with humans. These spooky creatures get a bad rap because people fear them, so they lean into social prejudices and become a notorious criminal gang. Except now they might want to go good because being good feels better than being bad. Thematically, it’s the same territory that Zootopia trod and with better world-building. We have “bad animals” that are tired of being looked as bad because people wrongly interpret them as scary threats. It’s the predator/prey dynamic but without the depth. Having an all-animal heist crew provides some creative entertainment and Ocean’s 11-style moments of frothy fun; I especially enjoyed that the giant shark is the team’s master of disguise and always very obvious. The character arcs, supposed betrayals, redemption, and plot should be familiar and predictable, which means much of the movie must coast on the appeal of the animation, vocal actors, and general sense of humor. The comedy can be amusing but too often falls upon cheap gags, like the piranha’s defining trait of being a nervous farter. The Bad Guys is suitable for animation aficionados, fans of the book series, and people who have never seen Zootopia, and if that’s you, then just watch Zootopia.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Oddly enough, over the course of less than a year, we now have two movies about young souls competing to find their sense of self before being born. Will (Winston Duke) lives in a small cottage in the middle of the desert. Or so it would appear. He’s a former human who now serves as a spirit who watches over the lives of a select group of others on Earth through P.O.V. monitors. After a car accident, one of his people is killed, leaving a new opening. It’s Will’s job to interview a group of candidates and determine who is best equipped to handle being born. Will takes the process very seriously but he is also more emotionally affected by the loss of life under his guidance than he admits. Where did he go wrong, or is right and wrong even the right markers for assessment? Will must choose wisely over nine days of deliberation and insight into what it means to be human and what it means to live.
Nine Days is a tender and thoughtful movie that has much under the surface given its metaphysical context and probing questions about spirituality, identity, and existence, but it doesn’t simply rely upon the artistic weight of ambiguity. There’s a genuinely involving emotional drama here that’s accessible while offering greater depth to be unpacked by the viewer who enjoys metaphor and implication and debate. At its essence, the movie is about a series of job interviews but for a position that we don’t fully understand what the requirements are and if even meeting the requirements is enough for the hire. It’s a primarily dialogue-driven procedure but it’s also character-focused as the entire process examines what animates Will, what haunts him, and why he does what he does. Early on, the surreal nature of what should be an ordinary event, job candidates interviewing with a boss, gives the movie an air of mystery and offbeat humor. The candidates are showing up, going through a series of questions and role play scenarios, and with each session, the candidates evolve into the personas that will define them. There’s something mildly profound about watching the development of an identity before it’s even been born. As the movie progresses, Will turns down candidates and the news is truly devastating. Not only will these spirits/souls miss out on being born on Earth, they will cease to ever exist and fade away. That is some heavy stuff. Watching each one come to terms with that sort of death can be heartrending. Just imagining having to accept the end before life ever even began.
Rather than simply fade away into the blank of nothingness, Will chooses to help these souls get one last moment of peace before their ultimate end. He becomes a celestial one-man Make-A-Wish spiritual service. It’s unknown whether these “positive memories” are from the souls’ own development or their observation of the souls that have been placed on Earth. Regardless, each rejected candidate gets a moment that Will studiously recreates as an act of kindness. This section can be rather moving as each soul gets a personal sendoff and, in those final moments to savor, we watch them become affected with the generosity and the fleeting moment of life that will be tragically denied to them. One candidate climbs aboard a stationary bicycle, and Will positions one screen after another, each with projection from that angle of the street. When taken together, it creates the illusion of a nice bicycle ride through a town square. The homemade production, even sprinkling cherry blossoms and a swinging light to illustrate a traveling through a tunnel, provide small moments of affectionate conviction. I found each of these moments to be emotionally rich and beautifully rendered on screen. The care and craft Will puts into these acts is wonderful and a tremendous insight into who he is as a character and what he values in others.
Will is haunted by the idea that he may have been oblivious to the pain of one of his pupils, and this indecision is coloring his interview process for a replacement soul. It’s unclear what exactly Will is, or his boss, or his duties, but he vaguely amounts to a guardian angel. He has a bank of old TVs that he monitors and obsessively documents the lives of a few. He takes particular pride in one soul on Earth and listens to her virtuoso violin playing as a means of personal relaxation. Her sudden death rocks him, and when it’s revealed that she was depressed, he tries to make sense of being able to see and hear everything these souls do but not fully knowing them. Did he get something wrong in his clerical assessment? Did his understanding of her have its limits? Could she have been hiding something so all-consuming without his suspicion? It all upends Will and fosters self-doubt. He’s trying to make sense of something that may not ever make sense. That is how inscrutable human beings can be and how tragically fleeting life can become in an instant.
The other change agent for Will is the presence of Emma (Zazie Beetz), a candidate who shows up late, questions the nature of the questions she is given, and is empathetic to a fault. The other candidates are playing within the rules of Will’s questions but she’s pushing back, and it only makes Will think more and more about her and her aims. I don’t consider it too much of a spoiler that Emma will be one of two final candidates for the open spot for life. Her character causes Will to reassess his own biases, his own way of doing things as they have, and his own conception of himself and what life can be about including his own time spent on Earth, which he likes to remind the others like it’s bragging rights. I suppose one could argue that, yet again, we have a quirky female character in service of teaching the male hero about the importance of embracing life to the fullest, but I think the general makeup of the characters is superfluous to the impact of the story. We’re dealing with spirits taking a physical form here. Their appearance is immaterial to their identity at this point, at least in an otherworldly realm that (hopefully) knows no sexism and racism.
Nine Days is the film debut from commercial director Edson Oda and the movie is utterly gorgeous from a technical standpoint. The photography favors gleaming sunsets and pristine vistas to communicate the exquisiteness and otherworldly plane of existence. The desert landscape is beautifully filmed, and the interiors are also pleasing with their visual arrangements and the mingling of natural and artificial light. Oda won a screenwriting award at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and for good measure. This isn’t just a good-looking indie, which it assuredly is, but there is deep melancholy and beauty and transcendence to be had with the very humane and compassionate storytelling trying to get at larger truths about our limited time. The storytelling has plenty of ambiguity and nuance and metaphor, but there’s an accessible core that I believe most viewers can align with and then, if they choose, can discover further meaning. There is a slightly basic “stop and smell the roses” moral, but I found there to be more lyrical beauty at different points that affected me deeper than any condensed message. The conclusion hinges on a recitation of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and it conveys not just Whitman’s celebratory humanism but also taps into Will’s own character arc. The poetic performance itself is an expression with multiple levels, celebrating life in multiple ways, and serving as a heartfelt and personal goodbye. It’s a lovely ending for a lovely little movie.
Nine Days is packed with recognizable acting faces (Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgaard), several of whom have graced Marvel superhero movies (Duke, Beetz, Benedict Wong), and there must have been something compelling for them to all accept this low-budget, contemplative indie about the human condition. It’s a little movie with a lot on its mind but it doesn’t feel the need to explain everything. There’s a sturdy foundation to begin with but enough ambiguous room for discussion and debate. It reminds me of 2003’s beguiling, divisive, and highly metaphorical indie Northfork. Both movies are poetic, understated, and deeply involved in human connection and spiritual meaning while providing room for interpretation. There’s plenty here to unpack but even on a literal level the movie works as an emotional experience. I found myself under the gentle sway of Nine Days and its mighty beating heart of humanism that extends even beyond the realm of flesh and blood.
Nate’s Grade: A-
I don’t really know what this movie was trying to say. I think co-writer/director Noah Hawley (TV’s Fargo, Legion) was better trying to humanize the story of Lisa Novak, the astronaut who drove 900 miles, while wearing diapers to skip bathroom breaks, to confront the current lover of an ex-boyfriend, all three NASA employees. It was a story so bizarre, so tabloid ready, that a big screen adaptation was inevitable. What I wasn’t expecting was an artist to take this and discard the attention-grabbing details and turn this into a ponderous existential meditation. Lucy (Natalie Portman) has recently returned from Earth and our big blue planet doesn’t feel the same after she’s touched the majesty of space. Her life seems small, meaningless, boring, and she can’t shake her terrestrial depression. She begins an affair with a co-worker (Jon Hamm) to feel that same special sensation again, but she’s chasing something uniquely elusive. Lucy in the Sky is structured like a meandering Terrence Malick movie was crossbred with a heavy-handed addiction melodrama. It’s not a good fit. The ever-changing aspect ratios are meant to convey her emotional state, but just when I thought I had a handle on how to decode them, Hawley would frustratingly break the rules with them. As far as I can tell, the wider ratio (during space) is meant to convey… good things, and the smaller, boxier ratios (Earthbound) are meant to convey… not good things. But then wide shots will be filmed in super widescreen and it throws away that interpretation. It’s an annoying visual tic in a movie that feels over-directed. The blunt characterization for Lucy fails to open her up beyond that of a self-destructive addict. She had a demanding mother (Ellen Burstyn), an existential crisis, and a boring husband (Dan Stevens), so does that explain her behavior? Portman commits to the madness and I give her credit, though her thick Texas accent made me rear back (it sounded like Reba McEntire). The movie is almost worth watching just for her game performance, kind of like last year’s similar artistic misfire, Vox Lux. Lucy is definitely unhinged by the time she’s making her fateful cross-state road trip. She mutters that women are regarded as “too emotional” as a common slight to sideline, but her behavior isn’t exactly dispelling this criticism. Maybe trying to turn “diaper astronaut love triangle” into a symbol for female discrimination wasn’t exactly the best call. Lucy in the Sky is an arty mess that is trying so hard to say something profound but loses the very appeal of its source material. Either you embrace “diaper astronaut love triangle” or you don’t.
Nate’s Grade: C
There has been a lot of discussion over Joker, a new dark R-rated spinoff unrelated to other comic book movies and directed by the man who gave the world The Hangover films. Director/co-writer Todd Phillips desired to tell a character-driven drama that explored how Batman’s most notorious villain, and perhaps the most widely known villain of all pop culture, became exactly the clown he is. Some people said the Joker didn’t need a back-story, others said that Phillips had no place dabbling into the realm of superhero cinema, and there were plenty of others who expressed unease that the movie might inadvertently serve as an inspiration for disaffected loners looking for encouragement to make others feel their pain and suffering. After all those think pieces and cultural hand-wringing, Joker, as the actual movie, isn’t quite the transgressive experience that others feared and that the movie very much wants you to believe.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a quiet, pathetic man who is being ground down by the forces in his life. He has a unique medical condition that causes him to break out in hysterical laughter when he’s nervous or upset, which only makes others feel nervous and upset. It’s hard for him to keep his job as a for-hire clown and his therapy and medicine are being eliminated thanks to budget cuts. He cares for his elderly mother (Frances Conroy), crushes on an attractive neighbor (Zazie Beetz), and dreams of being a stand-up comic who will one day grace the set of his favorite late-night talk show host, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur’s life changes from one night of extreme violence and how it shapes his concept of himself and society. He’s tired of feeling bad for who he is and he’s going to realize his true potential on the biggest stage.
There’s something, excuse the modern parlance, quite “edgelord” about the film and its artistic approach. It’s very eager to be dangerous, edgy, disturbing, and there are certainly extended moments where it achieves these goals, notably thanks to Phoenix’s performance. However, I was cognizant of how eager the film was to be gritty, and dark, and different, to the point that it felt like the whole enterprise wasn’t just trying too hard to be different but wanted you to know it was trying. After a while, you just have to shrug and say, “Hey, movie, I get it.” This guy’s life ain’t too hot. The first 45 minutes could probably be condensed in half. The first two acts feel redundant as they establish the many trials and tribulations of this man on the edge of a broken society that has abandoned him. Because of this, Joker can be an entertaining experiment in solo superhero stories but there is a critical absence of depth that keeps the film from going beyond a stellar lead performance. It’s a Martin Scorsese hodgepodge, a cover song for a famous villain.
This is the kind of movie where subtlety is rarely used, which increases the sensation that it’s trying too hard because it seems like it’s saying all of its points with exclamation marks. Even in the opening minutes, while Arthur is applying his clownish makeup, we hear a voice over narration from a TV newscaster who is essentially screaming to the audience all of the important social contexts for the setting (Things are bad! People are mean! The economy is bad! People are getting desperate! What has the world come to?!). There’s a fantasy experience where the characters are just openly explaining their desires. The visual metaphors are pretty simple, like the idea of hiding behind a mask (don’t we all wear masks, man?) and the intimidating set of stairs ascending to Arthur’s apartment that he must climb. So many supporting characters act like mouthpieces for larger collective groups, like a paid therapist who tells Arthur that the people with money don’t care about her or Arthur, the little people caught in the machinery of runaway capitalism, or Thomas Wayne as the callous and cold business elite who seems disdainful about any sort of empathy for others that challenge his responsibility to a larger society. De Niro’s talk show host feels like an amalgamation of a lot of different themes, like daddy issues, the media, but also the representation of ridicule as comedy and mass entertainment. There aren’t so much supporting characters as there are ideas, and in a weird way this could have worked, as if each figure represents some different level of psychosis for Arthur, almost as if it was repeating the 2003 movie Identity and everyone really is a reflection of Arthur’s damaged personality. The inclusion of Beetz (Deadpool 2) is more a plot device meant to humanize Arthur, but the entire premise feels like it’s missing development to make it believable, and ultimately this is the point of her character but it’s a long wait for a reveal for a character that is superfluous at her core. It’s the kind of movie that thinks we need to yet again see the definitive formative act of every Batman movie.
The movie does pick up a momentum when Arthur starts to get set on his way toward becoming the clown prince of crime. When the Joker gets his first taste of violence, in self-defense, the clown vigilante becomes a symbol for a reactionary contingent of Gotham’s lower classes. The groundswell of support provides a welcomed sense of community for a man who has been secluded for his idiosyncrasies, but it’s a celebration of a loss of morality, and so to fully embrace this tide of supporters he must give away the last of vestiges of his soul. This downfall allows for the movie to feel like it’s finally committed to something, where the setups are finally starting to coalesce around a character who is now driving his story rather than being the recipient of misfortune. The violence becomes more shocking and Arthur stops caring about hiding who he really is, and that’s when the movie becomes the full force it had been promising. I was tapping nervously throughout the final thirty minutes because I was anticipating bad things for anybody on screen. Phillips can use this anxious anticipation for unexpected comedy too, like where a character was trapped due to their unique circumstances and whether they too were in mortal peril. I wish Phillips had pulled back because there’s a perfect visual to conclude his movie, that brings the entire self-actualization and loss of morality full circle, and yet the movie gives us another two-minute coda.
Joker certainly feels like Phillips’ version of a Scorsese movie, for better and for worse. If you’re going to imitate anyone, it might as well be one of the greatest living filmmakers whose crime dramas have reshaped the very language of the movies and how we view violent crooks. The go-to response I’ve seen is that Joker is a combination of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. I’ll readily agree with the Taxi Driver comparisons. It’s everywhere. We have a disaffected loner who is turning sour on an increasingly hostile and unstable society he views as beyond repair. Even the shot selections, camera movements, and 1970s era set design evoke that influence. The King of Comedy is more a facile comparison, as Arthur is a disturbed man trying his luck at standup comedy, failing, and becoming more unhinged. The real reason reviewers seem to be making this connection is the inclusion of Robert De Niro, and it feels like that is the only reason he’s actually involved, to ping back to King of Comedy. The idea of a stiff actor like De Niro being a glib talk show host, even in the 1970s, seems like a bad fit. The other real film influence I don’t see getting as much recognition is Network. This is a tale of one man tapping into a vent of anger and starting a movement that ripples out beyond them into something uncontrollable.
Phillips is best known for his comedy work but I could feel his leaning to do a straight genre picture. In other reviews, I’ve cited Phillips’ keen eye for noir-flavored visuals (think of the car traveling across the desert as seen through the reflection of sunglasses in The Hangover). He had the chops to tell a straight genre crime thriller, so it’s not surprising that Joker is a slickly made, unsettling, and effective movie when it counts. This is a grimy-looking New York City, I mean Gotham City, where the garbage piles high (another not so subtle visual metaphor) and the city feels like a maze all its own crushing our main character. The cinematography is great with several strong moments that amplify the mood of unrest and distaste. The crafty costumes by Mark Bridges (Phantom Thread) lend to the overall authenticity of the period. The cello-heavy score by Hidur Guonadottir (HBO’s Chernobyl) is very evocative and ominously conveys the turmoil bubbling below the surface in a manner that doesn’t feel like pandering. This is a good-looking production made by talented technicians and Phillips has enough skill to pull it all together, even if that aim is really to recreate a style of another filmmaker and the time and place of his films.
I’ve purposely saved the best for last, and that’s Phoenix as the titular character. He is mesmerizing as a broken man trying to find his place in society and flailing wildly. His uncontrollable cackling is so unsettling that when he broke into laughing fits, I could feel myself getting more and more unnerved. At first it was the awkward sympathy of watching a man struggle to get through his disability, trying to compose himself, and embarrassed for the discomfort he was projecting. The very sound of the cackling trying to be contained, as a friend and co-worker Jason credited, watching the laughter catch in his throat, it had such an immediate, almost physical reaction in me. Later in the movie, I cringed because it made me worry what was going to happen next because I know it’s a precursor to bad feelings. When he’s becoming more comfortable with his impulses and dark thoughts, you notice the cackling starts to ebb away. There’s a small moment that I loved where after he flees from his first murder he runs into a bathroom, and once his breathing calms, it’s almost like his body is commanded by some spiritual serenity as he begins to dance. Phillips allows the scene to breathe and play out, to invite the audience to join. This little motif probably appears a few too many times, but it’s a beautiful little moment of physicality that expresses the chaos becoming harmony within a man. Phoenix lost 50 pounds for the role and his gaunt, haunted frame reminds you how much of a shell of a human being this character feels like. He even tells his therapist that he questioned whether he was even a person or not. Phoenix burrows deep into the character and unleashes a committed intensity that is impressively communicated through his sad, reedy, sing-songy voice, his slippery stances and body language, and the madness that seems to resonate from his bulging eyes. Even when the movie is repeating its steps and tricks, it’s Phoenix that constantly gives back to the audience. It’s a performance certainly worthy of Oscar attention and plaudits, though in my mind it’s still a step or two below the instantly iconic, and Oscar-winning, performance from Heath Ledger.
Joker is a movie and should not be held responsible for the actions of others and what they may read from the film. I don’t sense Phillips and his team condoning their protagonist’s lawless actions, and the violence is often undercut so that it feels more disturbing than triumphant and exhilarating. When Arthur does get his first kill, the audience has likely been silently rooting for him to fight back, to punish the wrongdoers, but the movie draws out the scene in a manner that’s akin to a wounded animal panicking as it scrambles for its life and a cold execution. It’s not meant to be cool. Phoenix’s performance elevates the entire enterprise and will unnerve as much as it ensnares. It’s not a subtle movie at all, and it hugs the works of Scorsese a little too closely, both in tone as well as visual symmetry. It’s trying very hard to be nihilistic, edgy, and provocative (this isn’t your “normal comic book movie” it wants to scream with every frame). Arthur just wanted to make people laugh, the movie tells us, but the joke was on him after all (subtlety). If anyone is inspired from this movie, I hope it’s to seek out other Scorsese movies.
Nate’s Grade: B