Alright folks, the time is finally here. The most controversial movie of the year is finally upon us! We’ve heard the praise, the criticisms, the hysteria, the defenses, but now all that’s left is to actually watch the freakin’ movie. So is Joker a triumph for the genre or a disappointing misfire? Let’s find out.
Joker follows the life of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a for-hire clown struggling to make ends meet in 1981 Gotham City. An aspiring comedian, Arthur tries to hold down his job while taking care of his mother and managing a severe mental illness. When disturbing revelations, life-shaking upheavals and a chance violent encounter occur, Arthur begins a rapid descent into darkness. As Gotham faces the threat of unrest and the downtrodden begin to rise up, Arthur will find himself in the midst of it all as a new figure called the Joker.
I’m going to get the most obvious praise out of the way, and that is for Joaquin Phoenix’s absolutely fantastic performance. Every bit of his work here, from his speech pattern to his movements to even just his posture tells the tale of Arthur Fleck. He engenders sympathy early on through his portrayal of the damaged and broken man, but as he turns into the Joker that all changes. His confidence grows, his movements gain grace, and his sad eyes quickly fill with new life, but only because he has surrendered to darkness and evil. Arthur’s once pitiful yet sympathetic persona has been replaced by the pitiless and unrelenting terror of the Joker, and the transformation is truly something to behold. The rest of the cast is great (particularly Robert de Niro), but this is Joaquin Phoenix’s movie and he owns it. To say he should get an Oscar nod is an understatement, and unless something else comes along he should definitely win. It’s really that good.
Todd Phillips also deserves a lot of credit, along with his cinematographer Lawrence Sher, for creating a movie that’s filled with inventive shots, gorgeous images and some clever visual imagery. Gotham City looks like a complete dump, but Phillips and Sher somehow make it beautiful amidst the garbage and rats, highlighting the big towers in the distance or using the light to add color to it all. They also give the movie a slightly heightened feel, appropriate since the film is told through the eyes of the Joker, and gives you a sense that what you’re seeing is a fantasy (albeit a dark one). Some of the scenes are shot in such a beautiful, haunting way that they really stick with you, especially once Arthur completes his transformation into the Joker. There is definitely a Scorsese vibe here, particularly Taxi Driver, but Phillips takes that and is able to make something very much his own.
Speaking of Phillips, he and co-writer Scott Silver have crafted a very interesting and compelling script for this film. It’s definitely more of a character study, not specifically plot-driven or complicated like many recent superhero films, but it still moves with purpose and has some excellent scenes of tension and emotional heft. The events that lead to the birth of the Joker are surprisingly plausible, which makes it all the more scary and disturbing as we watch it happen. The film may take place in Gotham and a version of the DC Universe, but it very much reflects our real world, and perfectly captures the mood of the country. Thankfully despite that it never preaches or hits you over the head, it just makes you sit back and watch these events unfold, leaving you to ponder as you walk out of the theater. It doesn’t seem to take much from the comics, minus a few scenes that hearken back to some classic Joker stories, but what they create still remains true to the Joker character. His origin as a failed comedian reminded me of The Killing Joke in some ways, but dives a little deeper to show the sad and troubled man underneath it all, and how he could turn into such a monster.
Honestly, though, the best thing I can think to say about this movie is that unlike most other comic book movies it truly is about something important. The film holds up a mirror to our society, which is filled with mass shootings, a disturbing lack of empathy, and human cruelty from all levels of power and both on and offline. It shows us how someone like Arthur Fleck could be real, and how his descent into madness is not entirely out of the realm of plausibility. Society turns its back on mentally ill people like him all the time, and Joker serves as a desperate plea for compassion and civility in a world rapidly running out of both. On the flipside, it also serves as a warning of what could happen should we allow this to continue, which I believe is something we all need to recognize and reckon with. The film is a bold statement to make in today’s time and will undoubtedly rankle a few viewers, but it is something we all need to understand lest we create a Joker of our own.
To address the controversies surrounding this film I think Todd Phillips did a good job towing the line of sympathy with this character. While Arthur is someone you do feel sorry for, in no way does the film ever condone what he does or show his actions as anything but frightening, disturbing and just plain wrong. It does showcase his violent actions sparking a political movement (similar more to far left “eat the rich” ideology than anything related to Trump, oddly enough) but the Joker doesn’t endorse any belief or encourage any specific value system, just like he’s portrayed in the comics. As far as the violence goes, I think that complaint has been drastically overblown, as I can think of ten movies offhand from just this year that are more violent than this one, yet for some reason this gets all the attention. It’s a strange critique in my opinion.
I do want to say, though, that this film is definitely not for everyone. First off, anyone going in expecting an action movie or something like the Marvel films is going to be very disappointed, and won’t like Joker’s measured pace or intense story. I’d also say that people who don’t like thrillers or horror movies may want to steer clear, because even though it stars the Joker it isn’t comic book-y at all. It’s a very disturbing and sometimes scary look at a man turning into a monster, and when he snaps it is very terrifying and effective. Your reaction to this film will come down to taste, and while I think people need to see this film, I don’t know if all audiences should go. The film is heavily nihilistic and goes against the bright and positive escapist elements of most superhero movies, and embraces that darkness. Not everyone is into that, so judge for yourself before walking in. And for God’s sake, please don’t bring any kids.
As far as actual complaints with the film go, I surprisingly thought that the only problem I had were the actual ties to the Batman mythology itself. The stuff with Gotham is used well, showing the city perhaps in the most comics accurate way ever put on film, but I’m talking about the actual ties to Batman himself. The script has some interesting bits involving Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), and the scene where Arthur encounters the young Bruce Wayne is bone-chilling and intense, but it’s unfortunately leading to a moment where… I can’t spoil it, but it’s a scene we’ve done a thousand times already and didn’t need to see again. There’s one moment at the end that almost redeems it, but I had to read into its meaning a bit to make it work.
Having read a few negative reviews, I can also see where some might find fault with the film in other parts. Some have found the script a little too surface level or the pacing a little too slow, and more than a few have brought up how trite it is that literally everyone Arthur meets is a jerk to him. I definitely understand these complaints, but I didn’t see the film that way. I thought the script went deep enough to show us what was going through his mind, focusing more on setting up his downfall than doing a super deep dive into his specific mental illness. Plus, the film is indeed seen through his eyes, so that may have been intentional. Once again, that’s just me, so your mileage may vary.
Joker isn’t your normal comic book movie, it’s a film that transcends the genre to become something truly special. Todd Phillips, against all odds, has delivered an important and gripping film that successfully reinvents the Clown Prince of Crime once again. Joaquin Phoenix delivers what may be his best performance and carries the film on his shoulders, making an already good film a must-see. It may not be for everyone, but this timely tale of violence, cruelty and societal decay couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. It’s quite simply one of the best films of the year, and I really hope that you’ll give it a shot.
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Joker is in theaters now.
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