Thirty years ago, Tim Burton introduced us to not only Michael Keaton as what many still say is the quintessential Batman, but to Jack Nicholson, considered for a long time as the perfect choice to play the manic, high-octane Joker. That is until Heath Ledger (who, much like Keaton, was originally criticized for being a poor casting choice) blew us away with his Oscar-winning turn as the deranged psychopath in 2008’s The Dark Knight. It didn’t seem like anyone would live up to Ledger’s unhinged frenzy, especially after Jared Leto’s utter butchering of the beloved character in Suicide Squad. Luckily, Joaquin Phoenix dispelled those fears by delivering yet another Oscar-worthy performance as the titular character in the gritty, dark character study, Joker.
From the moment we meet Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck playing clown outside of a store while twirling a sign, we’re introduced to the deep sorrow that plagues this character under the fake, irrational smile. After chasing a gang of kids who steal the sign and then subsequently beat him to a pulp, we understand it isn’t just his physical body that’s been beaten throughout his life — it’s his soul as well. It doesn’t help matters that Arthur also has a condition in which he’ll laugh uncontrollably, usually at the most inappropriate times.
Phoenix is able to manage the turmoil between utter bitterness and maniacal joy with such eloquence, we can never be quite sure whether his condition is a real nervous tick or if he just finds certain sadistic tendencies to be uproariously delicious. The film will never truly answer this question, but it works to point out the chaos within the heart of this troubled individual.
Though the film itself never moves above a flat-line of grief and depression, Phoenix propels us forward with his intellectually mindful character arc. Bullied by everyone from those kids on the street to his so-called friends, we empathize with the torture and ridicule this man must endure, turning him into a complete shell, both literally and figuratively. As he slowly finds out that his life may have been a complete lie, it only exacerbates his tendency toward carefree malevolence.
What Joker does above all else is look at Gotham City and the overall lore of Batman with a much more realistic eye. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was the first to take a step in this direction, producing a film that felt more plausible as opposed to some colorful, crazy, heightened iteration of a comic book. But director Todd Phillips takes things a step further by making everything here seem as close to the real world as possible. Political comparisons aside, this Gotham, and the people that inhabit it, could be any major city in the U.S. today.
At times, this real-world aesthetic can make you sick to your stomach; at others, it can become quite awkward, or drag just a bit — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. With other major Batman properties, there’s always some mindless, hyper-realized comic-book action to keep you entertained and remind you that it’s nothing more than a comic-book movie. With Joker, this sense of artificiality isn’t available to us, so it makes everything that happens throughout the film that much more frightening and disturbing.
There are a couple of beats in the film that don’t work quite as well as I believe Phillips wanted them to (Arthur’s relationship with a neighbor being one of them), but there is one major subplot that ties this film in with the lore of Batman in an intriguing way that I wouldn’t mind exploring in future iterations — if it ever comes down to that.
Joker isn’t a comic-book masterpiece in the way The Dark Knight is — we get a lot of brooding that sometimes works due to Phoenix’s well-balanced performance, but can occasionally become too depressing for its own good — and Phoenix isn’t quite as good as Ledger’s Joker (though it’s so close, I could see Phoenix’s version mature into becoming Ledger’s), but the film does bring us a solemn new spin to the life of the Joker that hasn’t been showcased before, making the entire thing feel unnervingly fresh.
My Grade: A-
Reneé Zellweger is a marvel as Judy Garland during the last few months of her life in Judy, however, flashbacks to the behind the scenes story of her time on the set of The Wizard of Oz made me want even more of what originally created the legend and less of the devastating life behind the curtain of Hollywood’s glitz and glamour. B+
Next week, new movies include Gemini Man, The Addams Family and Jexi. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.