How can so much ugliness exist in a world so beautiful? How can we find courage to beat back the tsunami of hate that can afflict people for no good reason other than someone taught them to be that way? If this was all Taika Waititi’s masterful Jojo Rabbit was about then it wouldn’t be one of the best films of 2019. If it was only about delivering a message – no matter how good the message, no matter how deeply it embeds itself in our collective hearts – it would not be great cinema. But Jojo Rabbit is storytelling at its most daring, inventive and effective.
Like many of the best films this year, Jojo Rabbit is disturbing, without a doubt. Great satire always is. Jojo in the beginning is told to be cruel by killing a rabbit. But he can’t. From the very first scene we know this is going to be a story about this inner struggle to commit acts of cruelty or defeat them and choose what comes more naturally for kind-hearted Jojo – and that’s love. Love burst forth whether Jojo wants it to or not.
Waititi himself plays Hitler as a buffoon with only momentary glimpses into the madness Hitler could summon while he did things like paint and hang out with dogs. Hitler’s gift was to inflame the mob into hysteria and fear. The German people were convinced that the most dangerous people were the Jewish people living and working there. Our President has been engaging in similar tactics with immigrants, caging them, separating children from their mothers and all the while selling a brand of hate that is justified by fear.
It is no secret that Knives Out and Jojo Rabbit are both about this horrible moment we’re all living through and seem helpless to do anything about. But Jojo Rabbit, unlike Knives Out, is not just a scolding of bad people. It makes the case that people can be turned around. Jojo is caught in a moment where he could go either way. The film shows that love can lead the way.
The performances top to bottom are magnificent. The film wouldn’t be the success it is without Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo. He is so good at playing two different conflicting feelings at once. He’s trying to be a bad Nazi but he just has such a hard time doing it. And his pal Yorki (a scene stealing Archie Yates) is yet another reason to convince Jojo that the world is not such a terrible place. Scarlett Johansson is as good in this role, if not better, than she is in Marriage Story, playing a single mother trying to keep her son on the righteous path.
In exchange for the sweet center, the film also asks us — dares us — to laugh at fascists. We can’t really be sure who is real and who isn’t. Who is a fascist and who is a resistance fighter in disguise. Who is a homophobic Nazi or who is secretly gay. We also can’t know who is hiding in Jojo’s attic. It’s a film about deception, pretense and truth. Even Jojo’s own deception of pretending to write love letters to Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) from her boyfriend. Or Rosie’s (Scarlett Johansson) deception to convince the Germans that she is not fighting for the resistance.
Jojo Rabbit is about the battle between good and evil that rages inside the heart of a ten-year-old boy whose imagination brings forth a life-sized spittle-spewing Adolf Hitler to tempt him into hating Jews enough to go along with the final solution. But Jojo is lucky that women exist. The women in his life open his eyes and his heart. Elsa breaks the spell of Hitler’s lies about Jewish people, while his mother loves him so hard that he can’t help but keep a part of his soul available to her influence.
Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit is so much better than this awards season has deemed it so far. As competitive a year this is, this is one of the few films that brightens the path it takes you on. It lights the way out of darkness. It turns monsters into jokes. It elevates love as the most powerful weapon humans have to change minds, save lives, and make the world a better place.
We can be heroes, just for one day.