Comic-book films are in abundance these days and while they’re all largely pretty entertaining, they are all quite similar. Every now and then we do get something to shake the genre up, that’s exactly what Joker does.
By focusing on a villain, removing his rival in the form of Batman, and just telling a very dark and brutal character-focused story, we get something incredibly new. Now Joker doesn’t reinvent cinema, it’s pulling from a lot of other films and genres to build something new in the comic-book landscape but that’s why it’s so strong.
We see an incredibly iconic character through a new lens and that lens is one that is both captivating and mortifying. Joker follows a mentally-ill clown who lives with his mother named Arthur Fleck. Despite his best efforts to be upbeat and positive, the world beats him down repeatedly and hurts him.
He tries to bring joy to people, he wants to be accepted and loved, but the world rejects him. We’ve all experienced this feeling of having the world against us but Fleck really gets thrown through the wringer. He quickly breaks and spirals downward into madness, ultimately unintentionally spawning a political movement to overthrow the rich and powerful in Gotham City.
Perhaps the biggest and most essential thing to Joker is that you’re watching a character commit reprehensible acts yet… you almost understand. That doesn’t mean you’re meant to sympathize, he’s bad, what he does is bad but the string of events that cause it are logical.
That’s largely in part due to Joaquin Phoenix turning in a performance that’s sad, empathetic, likable, and terrifying. When you see him hurt, you feel that pain. When you see him lash out, you feel the horror and weight of his actions. When you see him do something good, you like him. He’s so incredibly complicated and it makes him unpredictable.
You think he’s going to zig but then he zags. You’re always on your toes and engaged by what he does. There’s always a discussion of who the best Joker is when a new actor puts on the clown shoes and green hair but Phoenix exempts himself from the discussion. He elevates himself to a whole other level worthy of its own self-contained conversation as he weaves in all kinds of elements to his performance and takes new directions that one may have never ever considered.
The Joker is known for his iconic laugh and Joaquin Phoenix crafts a laugh that’s both instantly recognizable and goes far beyond a bone-chilling cackle. Fleck suffers from a disorder that causes fits of laughter at random times, typically inappropriate ones. It can be caused by fear, sadness, or anxiety but it always makes everything far worse for him.
The laughing typically isn’t one of joy, it always has pain hidden in it. The way Phoenix blends a sound that’s associated with happiness but bakes in sounds of small suffering or looks of undeniable sadness is nothing short of masterful. It’s by far and away the most nuanced take on the Joker and allows us a kind of movie we would’ve never imagined.
The laugh, the movements of Phoenix’s skeletal and almost feral body, and a morally complex nature collide for an incredibly nerve-racking performance that’s sure to generate plenty of worthy Oscar buzz come awards season. Despite being so different, it still keeps what makes Joker the clown that we are attracted to.
We all love Joker because he’s so unbelievably fucked up yet our eyes can’t look away from the insanity he beholds.
The places this movie goes are both incredibly interesting, unexpected, and bold for such beloved source material. If there’s one group of people you don’t want to upset, it’s comic-book nerds and in the wrong hands, this could’ve been butchered.
Not only does it take some interesting creative liberties with certain characters but it packs a punch with every major beat. When Joker kills someone, it’s not typical movie violence. You don’t gloss over it as a random guy just died, on to the next. Every person that dies is killed in a way that leaves an uneasy feeling in your stomach, an uncomfortable sense of dread.
A movie like Deadpool might have excessive violence and gore but it doesn’t really feel wrong or bad. Joker carefully injects the right amount of blood and brutality that makes your eyes widen and shakes you at your very core. As strange or even hyperbolic as it may sound, it feels real… and that’s important to this story.
The only place Joker falls short is how it sometimes beats the audience over the head. Sometimes it’s doing something subtle yet clear but feels the audience is too stupid to figure out what’s going on so it spells out for you. If it had more trust in the audience and doubled down on these risky moments, it could make for far more impactful moments that instead lose their weight.
By sinking the audience into the grit and grime of Gotham City in a way no other filmmaker has, Todd Phillips orchestrates an authentic and respectable comic-book film that moves beyond the genre. After the film, I felt dirty and like I needed a shower after basking in Joker’s chaotic glory.
But despite having that repulsive feeling all over me, I wanted more of it. I want to watch the movie again, I want a sequel or to see Phoenix’s Joker go toe to toe with Batman. There’s something undeniably compelling about the revolting nature of Joker and that’s an achievement in of itself.