'Joker' (2019) A Clown-Gone-Bad Movie Review
History With Several Jokers
When it comes to actors who have portrayed the exceptionally iconic villain, the Joker, there hasn’t been any shortage of outstanding performances. The version of the Joker that I was originally introduced to was in the form of Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman, who in my eyes still ranks high amongst my favorites. Nearly all of the Clown Prince of Crime iterations that I’ve seen has always brought something unique to the table; whether it be the 1960s classic baddie with Cesar Romero, the deranged artist Jack Nicholson that went delightfully over-the-top, Mark Hamill’s spine-chilling yet darkly comical mad-clown, Heath Ledger’s disturbing rabid dog anarchist, and basically anyone who isn’t Jared Leto… I’m sorry, Jared. Your Joker was… not good. Granted, Leto was only given approximately ten minutes of screen time at best. Although it still didn’t leave all that favorable of an impression for anyone.
Everyone else, however, has provided something either entertaining, creepy, thought-provoking, or hilarious in one way or another. Many would argue that the definitive cinematic Joker, and one that hasn’t been surpassed since, would be the role performed by the late Heath Ledger in 2008’s The Dark Knight. Honestly, I wouldn’t have any dispute over that. Ledger turned in easily one of his greatest performances as this terrifying terrorist clown, reaping havoc upon the city and sinking his teeth deep into the role. After eleven years now waiting for something new, I think that it is about time we finally got another innovative Joker portrayal.
The Punch Line’s Plot
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally-troubled comedian in Gotham City just trying to make his mark in this very cruel world that disregards and beats him down on a daily basis. Slowly slipping into madness as he begins giving into his violent urges, fighting back against a society that brought him so far down into total insanity. These are the events that transpired into what culminated in creating the psychotic killer known as “The Joker.”
Most Intense Two Hours I Sat in a Theater in 2019
That’s not a joke, so far for 2019, Joker was seriously some of the most intense two hours I’ve spent inside a movie theater this year. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as this broken man losing his grip on his own sanity had my eyes glued to the screen as I sat in absolute silence. Not uttering a word, there were scenes where I’m fairly certain I even forgot to breathe because I was so captivated by this poor guy having a full mental breakdown right in front of me. This is a fantastic throwback to the gritty and cerebral thrillers from the early days of Martin Scorsese. Joker is basically what one gets when they combine Taxi Driver and King of Comedy with the DC universe; a slow burn, disturbing character study inside of a world gone crazy.
The Tricky Origin Situation
The tricky situation about doing an origin story on a character like this is that the Joker has been known for being shrouded by mystery, even in past films and graphic novels, the Joker’s origin has always had an element of being open to interpretation. Usually no clearcoat answer as to who this insane clown is or where he came from. 2019’s Joker, in my opinion, balances aspects answering questions while leaving room for debate relatively well. We are given several avenues as to why Arthur Fleck is the way that he is and why he would descend into this downward spiral of leading to crime. For the most part, if one so chose, there is a heavy debate on nurture vs nature going on here and we don’t quite know what is exactly real or what is fiction. What is a fabrication of mental disorder or possibly a coverup. There is a lot to read into and anyone can sum up their own conclusion with massive amounts of evidence to back up their argument explaining how the Joker came to be. I dig that about the film and I love that there are only clear answers if one chooses to read it a specific way, otherwise there’s plenty of room for discussion.
Joaquin Phoenix Made Me Poop
Alright, he didn’t literally make me poop myself… but holy hell, man! My heart attack had a heart attack watching this character more or less losing his grip on reality. From the opening frame to the final moments, the word “uncomfortable” was the only description that came to my mind. Uncomfortable in a good way, uncomfortable in a way that made my skin crawl while unable to move a muscle. Uncomfortable in not knowing what Arthur was bound to do next; whether it be for him to snap and lose control or sit patiently as he perseveres through his merciless mental and physical abuse from the streets of Gotham.
Every minute of Phoenix on screen, I always felt the vibe that this dude was one small inch away from committing cold blooded murder. The look in his eyes as he is unfairly treated at his job, longing for romance, becoming overwhelmed by figuring out what is real and what isn’t, or even him simply sitting on a bus; there was something in those eyes that made it very clear that everything was not alright. Any second that someone crossed Arthur the wrong way, I was terrified if it were to be their last. Yet as afraid of this character as I was, and believe me I definitely was, there was also this childlike innocence to him that encouraged me to sympathize greatly for his unfortunate situation as well. This is most certainly a tragic figure spiraling downward in a sea of insanity. Occasionally there is the smallest trinket of hope, then in a flash is ripped right out of the man’s clutches. Leaving nothing except coldness. It’s not easy to watch, do not enter into this picture under the impression that this is some light material for an average Saturday afternoon. No, this is some mature content with heavy material and themes that are not so easily digestible. Especially regarding the character arc of Arthur that only leads to one bleak conclusion.
Something I was fairly curious about from the trailers was Joaquin Phoenix’s take on the Joker laugh. Every Joker has a laugh that is memorable and strictly identifies with their own personal version. Phoenix is no exception as his laugh actually has a twist on what triggers it. Rather than being a madman’s battle cry of mayhem like previously seen, this version has a laugh possibly brought on by a disorder when the character is mentally and emotionally overwhelmed. A clever take on the character’s laugh that I haven’t even thought of or seen before, it was an appreciated touch. Bringing another layer of torment on this struggling soul as Phoenix does an exceptional job simultaneously sounding strangely natural coming from his character yet physically painful for him at times. Then again, there could be an argument made whether or not Arthur is faking the brain injury at one point. Interesting to think about whether this character is the victim of mental disorder or if he’s subconsciously making his descent into madness all the more accessible.
Dare to Ask
Another noble aspect about this film is that it dares to ask questions as to what leads someone going crazy and turning to murder to the caliber of the villainous Joker. Is it his own deteriorating mental health? Is it mental and physical abuse inside the home or outside the home? Is it failures of the mental health care system for the country? Is it genetics? Is it a result of a society without generosity? Is it because life hasn’t gone how he had hoped and aspired for it? Is it a choice or was he driven to this point of no return by outer forces? Was he born this way and refused his nature for so long that it broke his psyche? Or was this a slow development of losing control over the years? Was it the abandonment of loved ones or revelations of his past coming to light? Maybe a combination of everything. Because there are so many questions, this is no easy going film. There is a lot to take in and contemplate upon. To the point where it would be understandable why one might be turned off by content such as this. There are no easy answers and it is extremely heartbreaking in a sense to watch. However, for myself, it was a nice change of pace to be challenged by cinema again.
1970s New York Alive & Well in GothamClick thumbnail to view full-size
Streets are littered with copious amounts of trash and filth, every building appears on the verge of being condemned, every average citizen chain smoking, neon signs glistening in watery reflections from the pavement, and rain pouring practically on a daily basis; the atmosphere is thick with being sleazy and seedy. Honestly, it were as though I stepped into a time machine to revisit New York City back in the 1970s where everything looked grimy. The entire runtime I could swear I was able to smell the stench fuming from the alleyways. The aesthetics of this film’s gritty world is gorgeous and shot to great effect, there is a lot to admire visually speaking.
Small, But Still There
Joker is a terrific picture, however, it isn’t without its flaws. Minor, regardless, still present are some issues that I have with the flick. Part of the fun about Joker is how it leaves certain narrative beats open to interpretation of what might be real and what isn’t; unfortunately when we enter into the third act it starts to explain a few things that weren’t real that I’d rather the writers had left alone for the audience to figure out for ourselves instead of being spoon fed a handful of the answers. Not terrible by any means, but simply overexplaining what didn’t need to be explained felt slightly forced.
Another plot thread involving Thomas Wayne had somewhat of a disappointing payoff. I promise to not spoil what happens and I will say that I enjoyed a lot of what the story had to offer in terms of allegations involving Wayne. Although where it all led by the end, it came across as tying up loose ends that really did not need tying at all. If it had trailed off from the Thomas Wayne subplot after a specific point or concluded in a better executed fashion then maybe I could see it working, but they sort of missed the mark there. Not dreadfully enough to where I began hating the film or anything like that, but again, it felt forced and unnecessary.
On the subject of minor gripes that I personally wasn’t bothered by, but I could see someone being annoyed by some of these aspects; there are some predictable plot points that probably anyone could see coming, truth be told I still was very invested in everything going on that I didn’t care if I was able to predict certain things to happen. Also, there are a number of sequences where the Arthur character will start to do a weird interpretive dance of some kind. Again, I didn’t have an issue with it and found the sequences to be off-putting in a good way. If someone were to say that the dances annoyed them or there were too many times it happened, I could understand their perspective on the matter.
To Touch on the Controversy
A phrase I’m truthfully getting sick of saying. Seemingly every film theatrically released is finding itself in the middle of some big controversy of the week. 2016’s Ghostbusters in regards to the battle of the sexes, Show Dogs supposedly supporting child grooming, Captain Marvel with more battles of the sexes, and Loqueesha being racist… Loqueesha actually was pretty racist. Anyways, now we have Joker being proclaimed to condone violence. After viewing the film, I can say without hesitation that Joker does not condone violence, it’s a cautionary tale akin to Taxi Driver. At no point is it depicting the violent acts that Arthur Fleck commits in a positive light, it’s rather disturbing actually and the tone seems to be aware that what he is doing is wrong.
Maybe this particular movie finds itself as an easier target because it’s portraying death and violence more realistically than most comic book movies, maybe the context of the horrifying incident that occurred back in 2012 with the release of The Dark Knight Rises has sparked paranoia around subjects that Joker tackles, maybe we’ve grown too sensitive as a society and no one can handle a movie that attempts to challenge the mind rather than accept the fact that movies aren’t the true cause of violence. People are. I don’t know. I’m simply a dude on the internet talking about movies, not an expert on the human mind. All I know is that this movie does not appear to reveal any sinister notions of inspiring crime, it warns against it in my eyes.
Joker is a slow burn that takes its time delving into why a man like Arthur Fleck goes mentally insane and turns to murder in his desperate search for comfort. Leaving the audience feeling anything except comfort. It’s a tragic story with no real happy ending as it can only go in one direction for this character. We easily are able to invest ourselves in this character as he internally struggles figuring out his place in the world while being driven to the edge of sanity by everything surrounding him. The pace is not one of an action picture, so definitely don’t expect constant shootouts or fight sequences. This movie focuses on the fall of a mentally ill man with very little hope of recovery. Occasionally the narrative fumbles here and there in the third act when it centers too heavily on trying to tie everything together in a neat bow when it was actually unnecessary to do so. Other than that, it’s a solidly suspenseful picture with a bleak tone and interesting ideas.
Be sure that if you decide to check this one out that you know exactly what you’re getting into. This isn’t the average Marvel blockbuster or even anything like what DC has released prior either. This is a New Hollywood styled character crime piece by way of Martin Scorsese. This isn’t filled with fun and kooky performances, explosions on top of explosions, nor is it remotely light in tone. Joker is a heavy film that doesn’t find all that much funny about the world it is establishing, unless it’s darkly humorous. Even the dark humor made me uncomfortable quite frankly. Director Todd Phillips clearly was not afraid to be bold here and make something different outside of the conventional comic book flick. Was it perfect? No, it was messy once or twice for sure. Regardless, I respect the movie for what it accomplished and would love to see more. Fingers crossed that anyone reading this would agree.
Your Favorite Clown?
What is your favorite cinematic/animated/televised interpretation/performance of the Joker?
That’s All Folks!
Joker… Wow. What did you think? Like or dislike? Agree or disagree? Fairly certain that Joaquin Phoenix was going to jump through that screen and strangle you ever so slowly to death? I was… Comment down below and let me know! Also, if you so happened to have enjoyed my review then please do me a favor and share this article around the social media world. Thank you all so much for reading and have yourselves a HA-HA day! I’m sure that makes sense somewhere.
© 2019 John Plocar