Definitive. It’s a word that to some, carries a lot of weight. In the context of “Nerdom” and Geek conversations, it’s the exclamation point when defending an argument. The definitive this, the definitive that.
Definition 1: (of a conclusion or agreement) done or reached decisively and with authority- the one caveat; who decides what’s definitive?
Definition 2: has something to do with postage stamps, but where I’m getting at is the reliance on finding what’s definitive or what’s not to discount something different is exactly what makes “Joker” work.
Additionally, your entry point into the Batman mythos and Joker will very much color your impression of this film and honestly any films revolved around these characters. I grew up with Jack on the big screen and Hamill’s voice on the small screen. The charismatic psychopathic criminal genius in purple with green hair a dastardly grin and a laugh to go with it was what I attributed to The Joker. He seemingly matched Batman not with his physical strength but with his mental prowess and cunning. Sometimes, even being a step or 2 ahead of the world’s greatest detective. Did that make it definitive, though? Possibly, but I must be willing to admit, that’s a personal choice.
Sometimes a societal one.
I obviously didn’t grow up with Romero but got reruns and at an early age found that to be a joke; (pun fully intended). But of course, I’ve already built up 2 iterations to be my foundation for the character, so my bias wasn’t going to allow for a full embrace of an interpretation that was reflective of the times and a result of Adam West’s Batman.
I say now, as a finger’s crossed well rounded adult, not being definitive but being different doesn’t make it bad. It makes it exactly that, different.
Audaciously enough Todd Phillips must’ve put a hex on the execs at Warner Bros or something, because to produce an intimate character study on a mentally-troubled comedian, Arthur fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) who embarks on a downward-spiral of social revolution and bloody crime is a bold gamble. The path we journey with Arthur brings him face-to-face with his infamous alter-ego, “The Joker”.
I say hex as I can’t believe WB would green light this film. We haven’t had a solo Batman movie since 2012 and the idea of a Joker origin story sans Batman was scoffed at. I still can’t believe it survived production and we’ve all watched it. Not because its bad. Not because its brilliant, which I believe it is. But, because it’s the boldest adaptation of a superhero movie I’ve probably ever seen that is challenging, brash, overtly provocative and confrontational.
And, I loved almost every minute of it. I didn’t think I would be this excited not only for my review, but the discourse. Don’t get me wrong. This is a tiring conversation to have, but I do revel in the opportunity to assist this piece of cinema in having it.
Did you hear that, Marty? Cinema!
Putting aside the Todd Phillip’s foot being squarely shoved into his mouth leading up to the premier for “Joker”, the man did the damn thing. The vision is clear yet ambiguous. He has a lot to say and does so in a viscerally uncomfortable way that pulls no punches and laughs out loud literally and metaphorically along the entire way.
This can be a commentary on Arthur’s society or our very own. The themes tackled in this film are important and while it being a matter of taste whether the execution was to each individual movie goer’s preference, its undeniable it was to great effect. This man, despite the outside noise, the outcries to censor the film, or even the outright exclamation that this film shouldn’t exist crafts a story that is simply about a man struggling through life having a series of bad days and when society turns its back on him, he makes the wrong decision to retaliate.
To be clear. This film says a lot, but what it doesn’t do is pacify the actions of its protagonist.
And yeah, it seems weird to think of The Joker being the protagonist. We know going in, The Joker is one of, if not the greatest super villain in pop culture. His origin has always been a mystery and there have been interpretations hinting at several possibilities, but none definitively. Only Bill finger, the writer and creator of Batman should have that honor.
This story is seen through the unstable and unreliable lens of Arthur. Phillips’ directorial choice to pen this narrative employing the “Unreliable Narrator” device was perfect for this artistic exercise. Somehow, this makes this very much a Joker story without Arthur fully developing into the Joker persona we’ve always imagined and have seen.
We can’t take anything Arthur details in this film at face value. Generally, we know what The Joker becomes and represents, but not how he gets there. The adaption of real life Mental illness to his backstory was a bold move and a representational one as well. I’m no expert so I’ll be short, but there are real people battling real obstacles mentally every day. We encourage those people to seek the help they need. What happens when that help isn’t enough? Or that help begins to fail the people it was set up for when its deemed no longer valuable? Does that beget, The Joker. Can we see in this film the possibility of a little bit of Joker in all of us? The mechanics of the medications and therapy sometimes working for and against Arthur is fascinating to see played out onscreen and even more perplexing when attributed to a future criminal mastermind. Phillips doesn’t ask us to feel sorry for Joker. I feel sorry for the man that became The Joker, and I don’t feel bad for saying that because I don’t find his actions justifiable in anyway.
Not that it wasn’t, tough.
This is some of the most incredible world building at work and I’m unsure how intentional that is or not. Gotham comes to life in a way like Nolan’s but very different. There are parts that feel fantastical like we’d expect from a comic book movie but others that ring very familiar and very true.
And, that’s the Tragedy!
Joaquin is an absolute beast. The places he must go to bring Arthur fleck to life while simultaneously displaying Arthur’s demise is astounding. The physical transformation alone is shocking. The way Joaquin committed to morph his body into a presumably unhealthy husk of a man. His pronounced shoulder blades and rib cage are startling and matched by the transformation of his speech and affectations. This is very much a solo film that all hinges on his portrayal and it deserves all the praise coming his way. Its powerful, yet sorrowful. I'm conflicted. I see a man broken and beaten down by a world that rejects him for being different, and while I have contempt for the many antagonists throughout the film I never condone Arthur’s choices.
His descent into madness is also questionable. I grew up thinking insanity was the idea that a person could be a harm to themselves or others and have a difficult time processing right or wrong. However, throughout the film Arthur reinforces his awareness with his choices, his intentionality and display of grace in his behavior too. Then again, with an unreliable narrator the story we see is what is his reality, not actual reality. Or is it? Every villain sees themselves as the hero, Joker should be no different. Then again, that would lend itself to the argument that this film’s dark nature is problematic.
However, the films complexities narratively are thankfully accompanied by beautiful imagery and a haunting score. In my opinion it provides a lot of the moments of levity in the film. I’d also say Hildur Guonadottir’s score is the 2nd most important character to the film. It’s as if the score is Joker’s sidekick and what allows us to see The Joker manifest in Arthur. The 2 together are like a tragic ballet. We can see Joaquin as Arthur in search of Joker and the journey is seen through song and its devastatingly beautiful.
The rest of the ensemble do well at servicing whatever the script calls for to show us Arthur’s journey. For some, that may ring hollow and feel like something else needs to be added to justify the overall film, and that’s fair. Whether that’s more dialogue or more well-rounded supporting characters, or maybe just more real (wink wink) characters. Like with my recent review of Brad Pitt’s “Ad Astra”, that solo journey to find one’s true self almost makes the characters we interacted with less important to how the film affected me.
I appreciated the hints to a larger world, where I was surprised by how much was included in this story gets bigger, but also smaller with connections to a very prominent family in Gotham. Some folks didn’t expect that. I don’t get why not. We must remember there was a Gotham before Batman and The Joker and the production design helps actualize this turbulent world that’s on the brink of burning. The socio-political strife is brimming with civil unrest and Joker’s evolution unbeknownst to him coincides with it. I’m still unsure if this was intentional, but Phillips is adamant this is a standalone film yet the events of the 3rd act leave me to think he’s in on the joke and leaves a lot in the end of the film open to interpretation.
And, isn’t that the point to art? Our interpretation. Or, maybe that’s the joke; the Comedy.
Joker was one of my most anticipated films of the year. I’m glad to say it met and exceeded those expectations. I also acknowledge with so much going for and against it and amid our current climate, expectation is everything. Whatever you went in to this movie wanting, strangely enough you got. If you wanted to hate this film, regardless of how much I loved it; you will. This is one of the most curiously satisfying character driven comic book movies I’ve ever seen. Joaquin Phoenix delivers a terrifyingly transformational performance that bumps him to my #1 front runner for a Lead Actor Oscar. “Joker” is unapologetic and an in your face commentary on society that is blunt and challenging. This film for me overcomes the vitriolic outside noise with a tender story about a broken man unfairly mistreated because he’s different who descends into madness where we gain insight into his psyche, yet it doesn’t pacify his actions. The exceptional visuals and soul stirring score will undoubtedly leave you changed. The entire movie will leave you changed. Whether for the better, or worse is up to you. But changed nonetheless and like the end of this film says… … … “That’s Life”
KOLBYTOLDME RATING- 9/10
Director: Todd Phillips
Writer: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beats, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp
Run Time: 122 mins