My taskmasters at the Fictosphere have taken pity on me and sent me tickets to see Joker several weeks after its release. While this site has already reviewed it, they rightfully requested that a professional offer his more qualified opinion. I do find it somewhat limiting that my life is now controlled by a trio of amateur editors who send me tickets on a whim without taking into consideration that I may want to lead a life of my own. While it’s true that my schedule is quite open, I have found myself unable to do anything as simple as schedule a doctor’s appointment for fear that the Fictosphere may beckon. I also must warn you that while I have done my best to avoid spoilers in this review, they may still be lurking.
My primary concern with this film and the bulk of my research was in to who the Joker was as a character, and as such, I feel obliged to compare this version to the others out there. Joaquin Phoenix brings a gritty narcissism to the character that we really haven’t seen and on the scale of cinematic Jokers, this would certainly rate amongst the most real and menacing along with Mark Hamill and Heath Ledger’s portrayals, with Jack Nicholson bringing up the rear nobly. Cesar Romero and Zach Galifinakis each brought a silliness to the role that betrayed their films’ evil plots and the less that can be said about Jared Leto as the Joker the better. It was the first time I truly believed a clown could be menacing, and the fact that his malevolence happened on such a small scale certainly benefited both the film and the character. My only true critique in this regard is that both the other films and comic books I read in preparation for this review seemed to insist that the Joker couldn’t truly exist without Batman, and so I must ask: does this version truly work as an independent character? To that, I must offer a resounding yes. In fact, I couldn’t really envision this Joker going toe-to-toe with any version of the Dark Knight nor could I see him embarking upon the flamboyant crimes of his four color inspiration. He is his own being and freed of the dichotomy of good versus evil, existing only to exist.
The rest of the cast are there only to elevate Phoenix, with each turning in solid performances that serve to illuminate another portion of Joker’s twisted psyche. At this point, I must confess my irritation at people referring to this film as The Joker as it’s clearly stated that he is simply Joker, another touch that helps distinguish him from his clown villain brethren. In fact, while watching this movie I found myself wondering how much of what was happening on screen was truly happening as Joker’s mind is an unreliable narrator. Characters weave in and out, taking on both benevolent and malicious roles in Joker’s story depending on where he is on his journey of self-discovery, with the only real constant being that most of the good things in Joker’s life (or, if you prefer, Arthur Fleck) being mere illusions brought forth by his own mind. Yet even this proves to the movie’s benefit, for who amongst us has never fantasized about a better life? Joker is more than a simple murderer, he is us driven to the brink and forced to make a choice. He shows us that once that choice is made, we can be free so long as we continue to make that choice again and again.
With that, I must address the minor controversy that arose due to the film’s violence. I am of the squeamish sort, and was only bothered by a particularly nasty scene involving scissors. The rest of Joker’s “kills” are simply gunshots with nary any blood or gore to be seen. There are worse things to be found in other superhero movies. As for the rest of the film, it is a cinema buff’s delight. The entirety of the aesthetic owes a lot to the Warner Brothers films of the late seventies, going so far as to use the logo from that time with end credits that evoke those of yesteryear. The soundtrack and cinematography provoke similar responses, with the film having an almost transcendental dirtiness to it you rarely see in the cinema today complete with homages to Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, and even Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times.
One of my only real objections with this film is how much body modification Joaquin Phoenix put himself through for the role. While it’s commendable for an actor to go through such lengths, every time Joker appeared shirtless in a scene I was forced to avert my eyes because he is nothing more than a fleshy skeleton with his bones jutting against his skin and his breathing forcing his entire torso to shift shape. It is almost enough to make me think less of this film, though the visceral reaction was probably one intended by the film maker. My other objection is that this film is completely bereft of naked boobies, even though they are teased by various signs in Joker’s neighborhood and the end credits cited an unseen stripper appearing somewhere in the film. While I would never venture into a gentleman’s club, as I find the entire practice of gathering with a group of people to watch a woman disrobe distasteful, seeing a stripper in a movie usually guarantees that there will be some breasts of a friendly size on screen. The closest we come is a scene where Joker bathes his mother, but considering her age I doubt that her nudity would truly evoke friendliness.
In short, if you are tired of the typical comic book movie fare and looking for something a bit more cerebral, I would suggest seeing this film. If you enjoy cinema at all, you should see this movie and while I cannot guarantee you won’t be disappointed I’d be willing to bet that you’d at least walk away pleasantly surprised that a film about a murderous clown could be so deep and, indeed, so enjoyable. Hopefully my review will be something of similar quality but far more current, and perhaps by then the Fictosphere will actually add me to their staff page. I thought such things impossible before seeing this movie, but as I previously thought that a comic book movie could provide nothing more than thoughtless entertainment so anything is possible.