Joker Non-Spoiler Review
Better to be Joker for a night than schmuck for a lifetime…
From a downtrodden nobody to an agent of chaos, by the end of the film, Phoenix’s ‘Arthur Fleck’ is the ‘Joker’ in what must be the most accomplished, unnerving, uncomfortable yet captivating performances of 2019... if not the decade. This is an unflinching character study, dealing with mental health and wider societal issues. A DC film with no "heroes" and no "villains", using the clear definitions of the last decade of comic book-based films (barring the 'Infinity War' version of 'Thanos' which went deep) involving world domination etc., nor does it glorify 'Arthur'. He's a sympathetic character to a point but a dark, scary character (a 'Hannibal Lecter' level character) as the story progresses and the darkness rises and this flows through this mirky film. You can appreciate and understand what caused him to become 'Joker' but the film never asks you to condone it. From the opening scene to the final shot, this film is real, bold and daring. The film audiences not only deserve but may just need right now.
‘Joker’ has multiple Oscars written all over it. This could be considered ‘Joker Begins’ as Todd Phillips drops the best DC “film” since Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’ (the quotation marks are there to denote that this is a different beast to ‘Man of Steel’, ‘Wonder Woman’ and ‘Aquaman’. This isn’t a summer “comic book/superhero” movie, this is an award season film using characters from the DC.
By now all the influences on this film have been mentioned, Todd Phillips has taken Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, Network and vibes of The French Connection, put them in a blender, infused the recipe with sprinkles of Alan Moore’s ‘The Killing Joke’ and created a dark and at times all too real character study brimming with timeless social commentary… plus, there’s some real-life inspiration perfectly placed into the mix including a harrowing, yet subverted, nod to R. Budd Dwyer. Do not go in looking for comic book action. This is a ‘70s William Friedkin, Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet film set in Gotham City and it is astonishing. It feels like this could exist in the Richard Donner-verse, a 1970s Metropolis that’s not perfect but more aligned to ‘Superman’ versus the corrupt Gotham City that’s disintegrating economically and socially, but that’s mostly due to the time period offered by ‘Joker’, yet would still work as day versus night.
Having mentioned numerous cinematic influences, it’s not a prerequisite going in for anyone to have seen those films, however, I would suggest after seeing ‘Joker’, if you love it, the above films are mandatory viewing.
Joaquin Phoenix delivers a performance for the ages. Looking back at the “modern” day list of actors to take on not only the ‘Joker’ but also ‘Batman, this film further proves how iconic and deep the characters of the ‘Joker’ and the ‘Batman’ are. Keaton is a phenomenal actor. Nicholson is Nicholson. Ledger, just wow. And Bale, while more subdued in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy, is cut from that same cloth. Phoenix takes little flourishes from previous incarnations – even a flick of Cesar Romero can be felt while the films plays with the more fantasy version of life -- but makes the role his own and delivers a ‘Joker’ that’s never been on the screen before and I would say, although extraordinarily hard to compare as Ledger’s ‘Joker’ was part of a ‘Batman’ movie, which was also a second chapter in a trilogy, delivers a performance that’s different but equally as instantly classic.
The awards nominations are going to be numerous, or at least would be if the wind is blowing in the right direction. A decade ago, this film would sweep the board come award season, however, all the online hysteria may work against it even though all that should matter is the film. Anyway, Phoenix deserves the Best Actor Oscar, that’s been sounded out endlessly this week, however, Todd Phillips needs to at least get a nomination for this along with Lawrence Sher who shot the hell out of this movie – the #GreatMovieShots posts will be dining out for months to come thanks to the cinematography on display. With all the out of left field director choices Warner Bros. and Marvel Studios have thrown up over the last decade, this is one that one hundred per cent paid off. It was apparent from the first trailer that Phillips had pulled something special off, which, after seeing ‘War Dogs’ was more expected than I would have anticipated after rating ‘The Hangover III’ as one of the worst movies of 2013. Hildur Guðnadóttir provided the score and accomplished what Hans Zimmer did for ‘The Dark Knight’. The film’s soundtrack is a mixture of score and songs, both of which perfectly punctuate, elevate and heighten each scene when used, and the score is used more sparingly as with ‘The Dark Knight’, it’s a very similar score and works as a cacophony of madness when needed, increases tension and is as uncomfortable in places as the pacing of a scene, almost acted as a nausea-inducing head throb in places. It’s top-drawer for the film but not something I’d be listening to on Spotify, it serves the film and that’s like most of the elements, they are crafted for this film not to be chopped up and sold separately.
Was there stuff I didn’t like, not really, after the cold light of day sets in, there will be things, some characters were there to serve the script more than anything else yet that’s also part of the experience as we’re not watching a film through a wide lens, this is from the perspective of ‘Arthur’ so what may have bothered me actually makes a lot of sense in this film. Anything uncomfortable or lingering is by design, erm, was a portion of the ending tagged on post wrap? Maybe, again don’t care as it works perfectly.
It’s been a long time since I have walked out of the cinema with such a buzz. There have been plenty of thrilling cinematic experiences in recent years, yet, many, while epic or gripping, are mostly from franchises with pre-established formulas and while ‘Joker’ takes its inspiration from the aforementioned films and is born from the gritty thrillers of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, it does demand attention at all times and even if it does go to places any viewer who has seen the films that are in its DNA, there’s always the second-guessing as to whether it will go down darker avenues or pull back, it doesn’t play it safe it goes to exactly where I thought it would with a macabre spring in its step.
The best way to sum the experience up, it’s not just a movie about the ‘Joker’ the movie is the ‘Joker’. It's adept at playing with your mind but then, it dawned on me, it's not playing with my mind because it's putting me in 'Arthur's' mind and creating that experience where it's difficult to distinguish between fantasy and reality, taking hard rights only to find truth and pain in reality, whereas the fantasy and illusion was more palatable. The framing of the fantasy versus reality is cleaner than in 'The King of Comedy', yet the film still has tricks up its sleeve for those who have seen that film.
There’s now a dilemma that only a mid-budget standalone film like this can create. Phoenix doesn’t want to do a franchise. There was little studio pressure on the film as it was just a mid-budget one-off. Plus, Matt Reeves’ ‘The Batman’ is in the works. BUT this needs more, at least for me, I am gagging for a Todd Phillips ‘Batman’ trilogy that could go from this with young Bruce Wayne, to parallels to ‘Batman Year One’ to ‘Batman: A Death in the Family’ or something like that but mostly from the perspective of ‘Joker’, then, maybe too much of a good thing just kills it.
There’s plenty more to discuss but that will start to go into spoiler territory and got to try and keep this review more about feelings and experience rather than plot details etc. Also, I just don’t want to get into the random media hysteria surrounding this film, not worth it.
Anyway, thanks for reading and let me know what you thought of ‘Joker’ in the comments if you’ve seen it.
Head of content and co-founder of Beyond the Box Office.