No point in issuing a spoiler alert. You already know how Joker ends. It’s in the title. It’s on the poster. It’s in the trailer. By the time the end credits roll, a villain will be born.
In that respect, Joker is a lot like The Passion of the Christ or Titanic, or even Apollo 13. The only spoiler, really, is that there is no spoiler. We knew the end moment the lights dimmed. Jesus was getting nailed to the cross. The boat was going to sink. Tom Hanks was coming home.
Movies whose endings are widely already known by a first-run audience can thrill us when the story of the journey is compelling. When each scene builds to that logical and yet still surprising climax, we walk away satisfied, thrilled even. I still get misty-eyed along with Ed Harris when the crew of Apollo 13 says upon re-entry, “It’s good to see you again.”
Did I like Joker? Yes, but...
It was only after a few days that I realized why. I wasn’t so sure while I was in the moment.
Joaquin Phoenix was wonderful, deserves whatever accolades come his way this award season. He kept me on edge from the first frame to the last wondering how much can this guy take before he snaps? And he’s going to snap. He has to. It’s in the title. It’s on the poster.
Unlike Passion or Titanic or Apollo 13, Joker is a small movie. It’s not going to wow us with spectacle, scale, or special effects.
That said, it is nominated for a host of make-the-movie-look-great Oscars--best cinematography, editing, costume and makeup, etc. Deservedly so, it’s a great-looking movie.
But it’s still about a guy pushed to his personal brink. It’s not the world we care about as an audience, it’s the guy. And in this case, the guy--alienated, frustrated, isolated--is enough to make us care.
Alfred Hitchcock made us care about the guy. He made a career out making us believe the small story was a big deal.
It’s when I considered how Hitch would have approached Joker that I truly started enjoying the movie.
The master of suspense would have not have changed much if anything in Joker. But he would have changed the title.
Hitch would never have given the ending way with the title.
He would have pulled us in with the star and the promise of a tragedy, sure. And we would watch a brilliant performance of a guy pushed from the edge into his personal abyss. And at the opportune moment, we would realize we were watching the birth of one of the greatest villains in the history of pop culture.
And we would be wowed because we didn’t see it coming. None of us would have known when the lights dimmed and the story began what we were in for.
And we would keep the secret, begging our friends to see for themselves this movie with the twist of the year.
Don’t buy it? Google Psycho. I won’t spoil the twist in that one. (But if you don’t know by now, you probably don’t really like movies in the first place.)
Hitchcock was so concerned that each new audience was spared of spoilers that he insisted crowds who had just seen Psycho exit the theater through a door that ensured they couldn’t come into contact with the next audience about to see the film for the first time.
For Alfred Hitchcock, the audience’s experience was the thing he held sacred above anything else, including a bulletproof marketing plan. Today, he’d be fired for merely suggesting the movie be titled be anything other than Joker. I’d be fired and likely blacklisted for supporting him.
The Batman franchise and its spinoffs are a global brand. Each installment is all but guaranteed to gross hundreds of millions of dollars after a worldwide release as long as the world knows it's a Batman movie when the ticket is sold or they click RENT on their smart TV.
Very few movies are worth watching again after you know the outcome. That’s because audiences care about one thing and one thing only in a given story. We care about what happens next. Take that away from us, tell us that we already know what’s going to happen and ask us to be interested instead in how it happens and we’re looking for the remote.
My remote went untouched during Joker. Will it win Best Picture this year at the Oscars? I don’t think so, but I won’t change this text if it does.
For the record, Psycho didn't win Best Picture in 1960. While we're on the subject, I don’t think Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood will win, either. But I had a lot of fun watching Brad and Leo make an ending I was pretty sure of at the movie's outset go up in flames of surprise.
Imagine if Joker had a card up its sleeve, a Hitchcockian moment just waiting to be played at exactly the right time. I don’t know if it would impress the Academy’s voters, but it sure would make me forget about my remote control.
Fred Smith is an author and filmmaker. His debut novel, The Coolest Labels, is available on Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, and other online retailers.
You're on his site. So stick around, have a few rounds on the house, then you know...buy something.