9 out of 10
Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’ isn’t your typical comic-based film; it’s not big, flashy and with a CGI friendly third act full of epic action sequences – and, despite what the media claims, it’s not even that violent. Instead it’s a deliberately slower paced, character driven tale of a man pushed over the edge, leading him to become one of the world’s most recognized villains.
Despite being based on the legendary antagonist from DC Comics, this movie doesn’t really bother to tell a 100% comic accurate story – instead, it draws some inspiration from the different variations of the character’s 80-year existence, and (very) loosely uses the character’s backstory from Alan Moore’s ‘the Killing Joke’ graphic novel and does its own thing with the material. But that’s okay, as all of the choices made for this film are fitting for the story being told.
The story centers on Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), an unhappy outcast living in the decaying city, Gotham, who works as a street performer that ultimately just wants to make everyone to smile and be happy. Arthur suffers from a mental illness that has him taking seven different medications, and a tick that causes him to laugh uncontrollably while under duress. He takes care of his sickly mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), who is obsessed with Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), and works towards his goal of becoming a stand-up comedian. Most of all, Arthur just wants to be accepted in a society that constantly kicks him in the nuts on a daily basis. As his job, his therapy, access to medications, and his personal relationships begin to dissipate, Arthur begins to self-destruct, setting him on the path of becoming what will be Gotham’s most infamous agent of chaos. There’s a lot more to the story and to Arthur’s descent within the film, but I want to keep this spoiler free, so that’s about as far as I’m willing to go with the story.
As far as the cast goes, everyone is great in this movie. Joaquin Phoenix delivers one hell of a performance as Arthur/The Joker, giving us one of the best and most memorable versions of this character. You can count me in the camp that believes he should at least receive an Oscar nomination for this performance. Also good in this movie is Frances Conroy as the sickly and obsessive Penny Fleck, Robert De Niro as Arthur’s comedy hero, late-night host Murray Franklin, and Brett Cullen as a dick-ish Thomas Wayne.
What I love about this movie most of all is, well, everything. The slow burn script, the pacing, the direction, the cinematography, the setting, and the score all contributed to an intense and unrelenting atmosphere. As I mentioned in my opening, there’s really not a lot of violence that happens in this movie, but when they do happen, they are earned, and they are built up with such an unease and rawness that I can definitely see where some would perceive this to be a brutal film. This films adopts a style reminiscent of crime thrillers from the 70’s through the 80’s, and feels, to a certain degree, like something that could have been made by Martin Scorsese (‘Taxi Driver’, ‘Goodfellas’, ‘Casino’, ‘The Departed’) – or at the very least like a more intense version of Joel Schumacher’s ‘Falling Down’.
What makes this movie stand out from all of the other comic-book based movies that have dominated the film industry steadily in the last twenty-years is that it’s a film that’s not afraid to take risks, and is also very focused on one particular character – there’s no shared universe world building or story elements hinted at or saved for future films. This is its own complete story, and this is what Warner Brothers and DC should be doing with their intellectual properties.
My only negatives are actually very minor gripes; one of which involves a certain character and plot point that seemed a little underdeveloped throughout the movie, although by the end I understand what they were going for, but I just felt like there could have been a little more weight to it that would pack an extra punch. And my other complaint is that I felt there was a little too much of the character dancing around – to the point where I just wanted those scenes to be over with so we could get back to the much more compelling aspects of this movie. Again, those I consider minor and subjective, and not enough to stop me from loving this movie.
You don’t have to be a comic book fan to see or enjoy this movie – hell, even I got so lost in this movie and the story and character work that I forgot I was watching a movie about a guy who eventually becomes the ultimate pain-in-the-ass to Batman. This movie stands on its own in so many ways; not just a good comic-book movie, but a good movie in general, and is worth a watch in my opinion.