The character of The Joker has seen countless interpretations over the character’s near 80 years of existence. First debuting in the comic “Batman #1” in 1940, the character has become the most famous super villain in all of pop culture. Not including voice actors such as Mark Hamill, we’ve seen campy takes on the character with Cesar Romero. We’ve seen him as a Clown mobster with Jack Nicholson. Most famously as a deranged anarchist ready to watch the world burn with the late, Heath Ledger. Finally, and most recently, as a flamboyant gangster with Jared Leto. This incarnation sees The Joker as a mentally ill man pushed to his breaking point by the dark side of society that surrounds him.
As the first feature to follow the character sans Batman, “Joker” tells the story of the Clown Prince of Crime, through the framework of a cautionary tale, heavily influenced by early Scorsese works such as “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy”. With a smaller budget compared to most everything in the comic book genre, a hard R rating and the promise of a stand-alone film not tied into anything from the current DC universe, “Joker” has all the makings of a bold, game-changing film for the genre.
Garnering tons of acclaim and awards buzz, Joaquin Phoenix is utterly mesmerizing here. Phoenix’s performance feels lived in and authentic. He is at one moment, sympathetic, and the next moment, terrifying. It is a showy performance, but one that also holds plenty of nuance. He consistently surprises in the role, revealing new layers to prevent a one-note performance.
Director Todd Phillips has rounded out a great group of supporting players to ground Phoenix’s role. Robert De Niro is excellent as Talk show host, Murray Franklin. In a role that pays homage to Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” in which De Niro starred in; De Niro gives a solid performance that makes a large impression despite his limited screen time. Frances Conroy and Zazie Beetz both respectively add the films only true humanity. Beetz is notably strong as a single mother who becomes Arthur’s only friend. Great character actors like Brett Cullen, Bill Camp, Brian Tyree Henry and Shea Whigham also give fine work in their brief roles.
Phillps and co-writer Scott Silver (“8 Mile”) do an effective job of slowly building up Arthur’s descent into becoming The Joker. The pieces are expertly stacked and in hindsight, you’ll realize that every seemingly small incident has left its mark. Once the final act arrives and Arthur has fully succumb to his dark side, the film becomes as tense and enthralling as anything all year.
The story here is completely original and plays around with the existing mythology, but still takes inspiration from noteworthy Batman/Joker Stories including Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” and elements of Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns”.
The immaculate production detail of Gotham City — a recreation of 70’s era NYC — feels tactile and gritty. Early reports of a garbage strike causing tons of garbage to be littered around the streets, adds to the atmosphere. Composer Hildur Guonadóttir gives the film a haunting edge with her melancholic score. The score never overpowers the bigger scenes and does an effective job of creating what we can only imagine to be the crazed sounds lurking inside of Arthur’s head.
Not all of it works, though. It’s commentary on societal warfare is a bit clumsy. Any message the film has about mental illness rings hollow. It is perhaps a bit too ambiguous in certain key areas, allowing some to make the case against the film for glorifying its darker elements. That is certainly not the intent of the filmmaker or those behind “Joker”, but the ambiguity does occasionally do a disservice to the film. Also add in the often eye-rolling “Taxi Driver” influences that are laid on way too thick and feel heavy-handed.
“Joker” is a bold film, especially for Warner Bros. and DC. It’s a film that unsettled me to my very core. The violence in this film is sudden and played out as matter-of-fact adding to the realism. It is shocking, it is ugly, upsetting and hard to watch, and that’s exactly what Phillips wants. This is a deeply unsettling film that won’t be easy to shake, but is worthwhile because of that.