There are a hundred different ways to unpack this movie. One could analyze it as a Todd Phillips movie, one could analyze it as a Batman adaptation, and one could also analyze this as a throwback to the time in which Martin Scorsese ruled the cinematic world with his gritty view of the world. This is a full buffet of a movie that I was anxiously wanting to devour. Apparently, the entire internet was in the same line with tea at the ready. For all the good and negative press this film has received as we inched closer to its release, it is definitely nice to see a movie like this get that much press. Was it worth all that hype, or was it just an unfunny joke? Let’s dig in.
I seem to be in a tiny boat that actually loves Todd Phillips as a filmmaker. I’ve enjoyed a good bulk of his work, and I have always noticed that he has a flair for the dark. Hell, take Zach Galifianakis out of The Hangover Part II, and you have a crazy dark thriller. So, I thought he was an inspired choice to take on this project. He did not let me down in the slightest. This is his best work to date, and you can tell he knows that. There is a feeling of confidence Phillips relays to the audience. All the shots are beautifully composed, and he shows his love for Martin Scorsese films in expert fashion. A lot of comparisons will be made to King of Comedy and Taxi Driver. Phillips clearly took inspiration from those films and even put clever references to both in the movie. However, the comparison I would like to make is that this movie is Phillips’s ode to Scorsese as Super 8 was J.J. Abrams’s ode to Spielberg movies. Some may see this as a bit of a negative, and I can wrap my head around that criticism because I would be lying if I said it didn’t feel like a tribute band of a movie. But personally, like Phillips, I love those Scorsese movies and was glad to have a movie that gave me the same feeling those movies gave me when I watched them long ago. It’s a stark looking movie and almost everything pops because of it. It’s done with grace and confidence. I would very much like to see Phillips get an Oscar nomination for this.
As to be expected, a movie about the Joker would be extremely convoluted and have a lot of twists and turns. It also would be nearly impossible to discuss the plot without revealing spoilers, but I will do my best. It’s a stumble and fall kind of story. Arthur Fleck is just a guy with a life full of misery. He can’t catch a break and is the product of a broken mental health system. The audience is stuck watching the world collapse around him. We see it through his point of view and that is horrifying. We sympathize with him, we fear him, and we can’t avoid him. For the most part, the plot is airtight. However, there were some head-scratching narrative moments that left me confused in a negative way. I felt the movie was going in an interesting direction with Arthur’s origin, but then the movie muddies the waters and leaves the plot in a bit of a confused swamp the audience gets stuck in. I think the idea of having the audience left cold on what really happened at the start of his life is a clever idea given Joker’s nature. However, his origin was severely undercooked and too overly complicated. Also, when the film would engage with the Batman universe, it was to its detriment. It was just a game of fan service I spy that the film really did not need at all. It also cheapens what was trying to be accomplished here. It is Arthur’s story, and yet the film would stop several times and try to crowbar him into a Batman story for very little payoff. I also felt the ending of the movie really undermined the climax of the movie. Without going into spoilers, right before the final scene, there is an absolutely haunting shot, and that is where the movie should have ended. The ending we get seems like an unnecessary epilogue that feels really tacked-on and clunky. The final line of the movie is solid but doesn’t make up for the odd shift from the previous scene. So, some clunkiness in the plot is the one key aspect of the film that left me mixed.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
There is going to be a ton of debate on how to rank Joker portrayals. I will say Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime is without question a hundred million times better than Jared Leto’s Joker. What that means for one’s Joker power rankings is up to them. Look, there is no point at all in comparing Ledger and Phoenix. The fact that Phoenix would even be in that discussion of “Who’s better?” against Ledger should speak volumes to how tremendous he was in this movie. There are other talented people in this movie, with De Niro and Conroy being the other two standouts, but this is Phoenix’s movie. I feel as though one is going to see all the adjectives in the dictionary to describe his performance: “Magnetic,” “Soulful,” “Chilling,” “Inspired,” “Transformative,” and “Incredible.” One could describe his performance as anything but bad. Phoenix is on his way to a golden statue, and he could not be more deserving. The best way for me to describe his work here is that it’s like watching an alien walk around Earth for a day or two. It just feels off in a good way. Eyes are glued to him for the entirety of the film. As much as one may want to look away because of the film’s horror, it is just impossible to do so. The use of the Joker’s laugh in the movie was insanely clever, and Phoenix really sells the pain of it. It broke my heart almost every time he would do it. It is a performance worthy of the Joker, and one should not have expected anything less.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
I really loved the score for this movie. Hildur Guðnadóttir makes one of the most chilling soundtracks of this decade. The best way to describe it is that it feels like an all-out pounding of the senses. It will not let you breathe—it just keeps pounding. It has obvious influences from Taxi Driver, but throughout the duration of the movie, it reminded me a lot of Teiji Ito’s score to Mya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon in just how unrelenting and ominous it was. There is no other composed soundtrack out this year that is like this one. It definitely gives the film an extra pulse. Masterful work.
Joker reminded me a lot of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre where after it is over, you just want to take a shower. It just feels so dirty and gritty. Phillips and his talented crew crafted a Gotham City that has a mix of the sleaziness of Scorsese’s New York with the cold industrial age of Burton’s Gotham with a pinch of the loneliness of Nolan’s Gotham. That is a recipe for creating the best-realized version of the fictional city. It feels as though the city itself is a character. It is a nice parallel to Arthur. Both are corrosive and easily corruptible. Both are powder kegs just ready to go off. I can’t express how well-done this component of the film was. The only aspect that left me scratching my head was when the film was set. It is supposed to be the eighties, but it feels way more like the seventies. Makes me wonder why they just didn’t set it in the seventies. But that is so minor that I feel stupid for even bringing it up.
Joker is a loving tribute to a bygone era of cinema. There really is nothing else like it out there in this day and age. It feels like a welcome breath of fresh air, even if the air is also crazy toxic and makes you very sad at the end of the day. The movie has a lot to say about the mental health system. However, the movie will not let one turn away from looking at it like one might look away from an actual mentally ill person. It leaves the audience with a sour taste in the mouth and a horrible feeling in the gut. Conversely, the film is a truly rewarding cinematic experience. It is a slow burn done correctly, and once it reaches the fireworks at the end, it feels earned. It’s not satisfying in the traditional sense, but that is the point. I also applaud the movie for trying to start a discussion about how the world treats the mentally ill. I hope that a lot of good can come from it. For whatever it’s worth, I do not feel like the movie ever intended to present the full discussion on the subject, but rather to start it and have the audience wrestle with it themselves. It’s an approach that will leave some out in the cold, but for me, I felt it enriched the final product. Truth be told, Joker encapsulates everything a movie is supposed to be. It is entertaining, the audience is never not engaged with the material, and it has something to say as well. Nostalgia will forever keep Batman Returns as my favorite Batman/DC movie adaption. However, Joker is no joke and will go down as one of the best comic book adaptations put to screen. Direction, acting, score, and theme all make one giant fulfilling bowl of cinematic jambalaya.