Joker is based on the popular Batman villain The Joker, a character with an unknown origin story, and tells a cautionary tale of a man disregarded by society. I was cautiously curious about this film, especially when it was first announced. I had no worries that Joaquin Phoenix wouldn’t put in a stellar performance, I was more concerned that a Joker movie couldn’t work on its own and with The Hangover director set to helm the project. But as time went on and we got to see the direction this movie was going in, those worries started to slip away. Finally, Venice Film Festival hit and Joker took home it’s top prize, I couldn’t have been more thrilled to see this movie. Joker is a movie that will not be for everyone. It is nothing like any comic book movie I have ever seen. This is a dark and grim look at a man with serious problems and mental health pushed to his breaking point by society and the environment he is placed in. This is a dark and disturbing movie, but a brilliant one at that.
This is a very unconventional comic book movie. I’d go as far as to say that it’s not really even a comic book movie other than a few characters who come from the comics. This is the most grounded comic book genre movie ever. Instead, Joker is heavily influenced by early Scorsese films such as Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, even to go as far as casting Robert De Niro in a role very similar to the Jerry Lewis role in King of Comedy. Like Taxi Driver, Arthur Fleck is rejected by society, left better off forgotten. With a history of mental health, living in a poor, low-class environment, and having the politicians of Gotham City working against him, Arthur is pushed to the point of becoming what we know as the Joker. The Joker traditionally doesn’t have an origin story. Some hints and ideas have been explored in stories such as Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, The New 52 run of Batman, and even in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. But none of these origins are the definitive Joker origins, he’s a character of chaos with no order or sense to what he does. Nolan so perfectly captured that with Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, but here Todd Phillips gives reason to the madness that could start a man down this chaotic path. Joker won’t go down as the definitive origin of the Joker, and I don’t think that’s the point Phillips is going for, but it is a fascinating and sometimes disturbing look at how someone could become a character like that in a real-world setting.
Joker is a heavy character study. The movie lingers on every frame of this character. There is hardly a scene where he is not on screen. Joaquin Phoenix is easily one of the best actors of our time and continues to flex his range in this role. Phoenix is unsettling and unnerving. Every actor to have played the Joker has put their own spin on the iconic Joker laugh. Here Phoenix does one of the most unique laughs I’ve heard done for this character. It’s painful, you can hear how much it hurts him to laugh like this and it’s uncontrollable. Very unsettling. Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck sympathetic, where you kind of start to feel for the guy, which can be very dangerous which I will get to. When Phoenix has to take that transition into the Joker, it’s handled flawlessly. He is so unpredictable. I was on the edge of my seat for the last third of the movie because I genuinely had no idea what was going to happen, who was going to die, and what the Joker was capable of it. There are so many great Joker moments in this movie. When the violence does hit, it hits hard. I felt sick whenever someone was killed, it was handled in such a raw way. Joker is a graphic film and ruthless in its depiction of violence. It never glorifies any of the violence on screen but is an objective look on what a mad man on a killing spree would look like.
This is a dangerous film. Solely based on its subject matter alone, this movie rides the line perfectly of understanding why someone would do these horrible things, while never justifying any of his actions. We get to see the living situation and environment Arthur Fleck is put in. A lot of his issues and mental health are not of his own fault but rather a victim who was never properly treated or helped. Joker paints a picture of why Arthur would choose to go down a path like this and how that would feel like the only option for him but never glorifies the idea of becoming a psychotic killer. It balances the line so well of feeling bad for the guy and understanding the headspace he is in, and never crossing the line of feeling he needed to do what he did. Again, a dangerous film that walks the line perfectly.
Joker is a movie that won’t be for everyone. It’s violent and graphic which will easily turn people off from this movie. It’s grim and dark and won’t leave you feeling happy, but it will leave you thinking. I found this movie to be a methodical character study, a deep dive into the mind of mental illness and a man thrown away by society. Joker is smart and so much deeper than your average comic book film. Joaquin Phoenix delivers an Oscar-caliber performance as Arthur Fleck/Joker. The film balances the audience’s sympathy for the character and feeling of horror for the actions he takes with precision. Joker is one of the year’s best movies and will be one talked about for years to come.