This review is going to focus on the movie itself…the final product. I will be including a post soon that gets into the controversies. But most of my issues with the Joker are, in fact, not with the film itself. They are with the director and how he has reacted to the controversies with the movie.
The Joker is a character with a long history, both in print and film. He is, really, nearly as popular as his great nemesis Batman. Of all of the comic book villains, it was always likely that he would get the movie treatment as “the star”.
Enter Todd Phillips, of Old School and the Hangover fame and Joaquin Phoenix with a decidedly retro take. Set in a pre-Batman Gotham City, Arthur Fleck is a man who is struggling with his own darkness and delusions. He wants to believe he is here to bring joy and happiness, but every day pushes him further into believing this world is too far gone. It has lost its way and people treat each other terribly, society favors the rich and the rich don’t care about the rest of us. And yet, at times, this just seems like a cover that Fleck uses to fool himself.
It is after committing an act of self defense that sets off the city pitting the citizens against each other that he starts to just give up and tumble towards the darkness. And it is indeed a dark tale. The Joker becomes a cult hero to the oppressed citizens of Gotham, used to fight back against economic injustice. Citizens wear clown masks and paint their faces in solidarity with the mysterious “vigilante” who stood up to the 1%.
The cinematography of the film is amazing. There are so many beautifully dark and unnerving shots framed in this film. It all feels very late 70’s Scorcese grit. It is hard to turn away. And yet, at times, you really want to. Phoenix gives an impressive performance as Fleck. He is constantly unnerving (much like the best moments of Ledger’s Joker in the Dark Knight). There are scene that are shocking and scenes that are genuinely scary.
While Phoenix carries the film, The Joker has an excellent supporting cast as well. While largely a stand alone, a few of the moments that kind of bring the film down a little are connections to Batman. It is not the mere presence of the Wayne family, but rather certain ways they are used.
The film is also struggling at times with how it wants us to perceive the Joker. He is clearly dangerous, and flat out commits murder, but he also is treated as an anti-hero.
Overall, however, this is a very good movie. It is not as groundbreaking as some want to make it out to be (It is literally “what if Scorcese made Taxi Driver, but with the Joker, instead of Travis Bickle). But the cinematography and the performances definitely make for a challenging but engaging watch.