JOKER MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Psychological Thriller-Drama/ Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Douglas Hodge plays Alfred Pennyworth, Dante Pereira-Olson, Marc Maron, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, Glenn Fleshler, Bryan Callen, and Brian Tyree Henry/ Runtime: 122 minutes
I feel I should say dear reader that in the aftermath of the mammoth success achieved by The Dark Knight, the Hollywood system fell in love with a specific three-word phrase, and no it wasn’t “Reboots and Remakes” though that I guess would count for a close second. No, I am talking about the phrase “Dark and Gritty.” For those who don’t get the significance of that phrase, what it means is that most in the movie industry simply came to the conclusion that the more serious of tone and tormented a protagonist was that the more audiences were going to love them. Indeed it should then come as no surprise then that this little philosophy would go on to directly influence not just the future of DC Comics adaptations, but also titles like the 2017 Power Rangers or the 2014 Ninja Turtles movie as what were once bright and colorful characters were now being utterly drowned in a wave of the true blue real-world cynicism ocean. I feel it must be said though that this was a huge error on the part of Hollywood.
You see what made The Dark Knight a breath of fresh air wasn’t that it was infinitely more serious and gloomy than the typical comic book blockbuster of the time. Instead, it was the realization that this film not once ever allows itself to be categorized as a “superhero movie.” In fact, if you take out Batman you are pretty much left with a near-identical copy of the 1995 crime saga Heat. So it should go without saying that because of this, The Dark Knight really helped re-contextualize what a big-screen story about a masked vigilante could be as it mixed everything that comic book readers have loved about the source material for decades, and then painted it with a fresh coat that general audience goers had never seen before with the end result proving to be an entirely new and exhilarating cinematic experience. Fortunately, this wasn’t an analysis that was totally lost on the entirety of the filmmaking world as we have seen in the decade-plus since The Dark Knight phenomenal examples like Joe and Anthony Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier (which borrowed from 1970s conspiracy thrillers like The Parallax View), and James Mangold’s Logan (which added in elements of a western akin to perhaps only Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece from 1992 Unforgiven).
All of which now brings us to Todd Phillips’ Joker, and I must say: we are getting something that is truly unique as this go-around on the cinematic merry-go-round, we get a look at the world of Batman’s most famous antagonist if he lived in the era of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy. Indeed, while the approach and subject matter do indeed come equipped with a heavy and profound unpleasantness, it nevertheless also provides the film with a foundation for a character study that presents one of the most infamous villains in the pop culture spectrum in a way that has never been seen before. The plot is as follows: Joker is our introduction to a young man named Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) who lives a grungy, run-down, crime-rampant, and incredibly filthy Gotham City that will remind you more of the late 1970s/early 1980s New York than anything else. Arthur, it should also be noted works at a clown-for-hire agency, oh the irony, and lives in a horrific apartment building with his touched, frail mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), and although our “protagonist” has aspirations of becoming a stand-up comedian, (again how ironic) he finds himself hampered by a number of mental stumbling blocks with the key one being that he possesses a disturbance that regularly and painfully causes uncontrollable fits of laughter. Despite this, although Arthur still tries hard, and is regularly beaten down by the world around him in the process, he is also a narcissistic personality who fantasizes constantly about being the center of attention for the whole world, but in particular managing to get on the stage of his favorite late-night show host, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro clearly playing the Jerry Lewis role from King of Comedy this time around). Suddenly it isn’t long though before Arthur finds his world changed forever when a violent assault suddenly and tragically morphs into a triple homicide, and the crime manages to become the unknowing spark of a, up until then, quietly fuming class warfare powder keg in Gotham. So we see that as the city begins to spiral out of control, and aspiring mayor and billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) attempts to call for civility as protesters dressed as clowns swarm government buildings, we also see Arthur as he tries to define his new identity, a decision that, as we find out, will change more than these 2 lives forever….
Now because the Joker is, surprise, the protagonist of the story, this twisted change-up from what we are used to ultimately results in this movie proving to be an extremely unnerving and disturbing 2-hour sit. Now I’m not saying that you may feel some sympathy for Arthur at the start of this story as he is mugged and beaten on the street, but what I can say is that I promise you that as this character’s distorted mind becomes more apparent, and his sanity and stability slip further and further out of whack you will find that compassion ebbing away until what you are ultimately left with is pure anxiety and/or terror. Indeed while films in general, let alone those which revolve around superheroes and supervillains, aren’t typically built with the desire and main intention of generating absolutely horrendous and downright hateful disgust toward the film’s lead, this movie is still nevertheless unique due to not only the emotional way the hatred is orchestrated through the narrative, but also how, by film’s end, casts we are left looking at a pop-culture icon that we all thought we knew intimately in a way we could not have predicted. Now a huge chunk of this hatred, terror, and disgust comes from the fact that Joker ultimately shows us just how much of a safety net Batman really has become to the city of Gotham. Indeed whenever we know the Caped Crusader is around we can all breathe a lot easier because we know eventually Batman will show up, foil the Joker’s plot, give him a good beating, and then take him back to Arkham Asylum, and the cycle goes on and on.
In this story, however, we aren’t in the Batman era in Gotham quite yet as not only is Thomas Wayne still alive and well, but Bruce (for Bruce does show up) hasn’t even hit double digits yet. Therefore there really is nobody around who has even the faintest capability to stop the Joker, and when placed in this world you eventually get to see him for what he truly is: a terrifying, horrific, seemingly unstoppable nightmare. Now since we are dealing with a, fairly radical, interpretation it would only make sense that such a vision would require a transformative, thoroughly committed performance which brings to the force of acting nature that is Joaquin Phoenix who manages to grab this role by the throat and play it as though he were the first actor to ever take it on. Indeed Phoenix is a revelation of the most frightening nature possible as he takes what might have been an over-the-top performance in the hands of a lesser actor, and manages to make it all feel disturbingly natural. Indeed Joaquin just never ceased to amaze me in how he managed to give each moment just the right amount of oomph. Indeed this turn as the Joker just wouldn’t be the same without the grand wizardry that is the performance that Joaquin Phoenix manages to provide. Of course, with all of this pat-on-the-back going around Todd Phillips also deserves some of this film’s recognition.
This is because he amazingly manages to completely and thoroughly reinvent the story’s classic setting. Indeed, by leaning in the story’s Scorsese-vibes and influences, this is a vision of Gotham that manages to stand in stark contrast to the Gotham shown to us by Christopher Nolan or Tim Burton. Indeed from the seemingly ever-present danger on the streets, a population constantly teetering on the edge between aggressive and madness, Todd Phillips’ vision of Gotham City proves to be such an unwelcoming and oppressive environment that it ultimately will enthrall you and not let you go…even after the credits start to roll. All in all, Joker is bound to be the subject of controversy upon its release.
This is because the film, voluntarily, leaves a lot open for us audience goers to unpack and interpret. Indeed everybody is going to have their own belief on just when exactly does Arthur go “one toke over the line”, on what’s real, and what’s simply going on in the protagonist’s rat’s nest of a mind, and finally on their own particular political read on just what this movie represents. Ultimately though, Joker is that and more; by more I also mean that Joker truly is a terrifying showcase of the horrific truth that “the worst monsters aren’t the ones that live in the abyss; the worst monsters are the ones that manage to make it out of the abyss and live silently amongst us.” And that is perhaps one of the most horrific truths of all. On a scale of 1-5, I give Joker a 3.5 out of 5.