Release date: 9 October 2019
Duration: 2h 2min
Category: Thriller, Drama, Crime
Cast overview: Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck (aka Joker), Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin, Frances Conroy as Penny Fleck.
Where does the Joker come from?
Batman is a comic super hero from the DC Universe. He appeared for the first time in 1939, and became the second DC Comics super-hero after Superman. At first, he was only fighting bank robbers and other classic gangsters, but the concept of super-villain quickly emerged. Of which, The Joker, who made his first appearance in the first standalone Batman comics (Batman #1, April 25, 1940) would quickly become the most famous. He is still one of, if not, the most charismatic and frightening super-villain in the Comics realm.
Naturally, Batman would prove to be an excellent character for Blockbusters and classic movies. Two filmmakers have made some of the best super-hero movies in this universe: Tim Burton with Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), and Christopher Nolan with Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012).
In those movies the Joker made several appearances and has been interpreted by several different actors. The legend Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) who’s most emblematic role is of a hotel caretaker’s descent into madness and horror in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Heath Ledger in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Night (2008) who would die six months after the release from an accidental prescription drug overdose. And the last to date from Jared Leto in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016), a performance which can easily be forgotten compared to its predecessors’ performances.
Joaquin Phoenix will, this time, try to interpret the Joker where he is the star and not just Batman’s antagonist.
We are in Gotham City at the beginning of the eighties, a fictional city mainly inspired by New York and Chicago. Arthur Fleck is a clown in his forties trying to survive and to provide for his mother, who he is living with. He is struggling mainly due to his handicap which makes him socially awkward. He has bursts of laugher when he is uncomfortable, stressed, or afraid. In these times of poverty, unemployment, crime and social crisis, we will follow the sad downward spiral of Arthur Fleck into insanity.
Review without spoiler
The principal aspect of the movie is the character. J. Phoenix makes a fantastic Joker. His acting makes us understand the sadness of the Joker up until he becomes a frantic killer. The difficulty of living with a mental handicap in a deprived environment is exacerbated by the cheerful malice of the various encounters faced by the Joker. This feeling of helplessness is sublimated by the filmmaking. We find ourselves in the shallows of Gotham. The camera is almost intimate with the concrete and the shadows, giving the spectator a feeling of ultra-realism. A feeling opposite to the fantastic and imaginary worlds present in most of today’s super-hero movies. We could compare the photography to The Dark Knight, which also gives us a feeling of continuity with Nolan’s trilogy. The music is an important complement, long, monotonic melodies played with strings instruments give a feeling of fear and panic during numerous dancing scenes (maybe a little too many for some but it’s not a major flaw). The Joker is dancing in front of your eyes to celebrate his alienation from a rational world.
The second major force of the movie is the story. The Joker possesses a number of different life stories in the comics. Each time with some slight variations, and this gives him a mysterious energy. How can we try to understand the madness of this character if we are lost in a multitude of different versions? This gives the Joker an almost mythical connotation. And this time again the story doesn’t fail to surprise and amaze us.
The story is punctuated with violence. But not in an obscene way like a lot of Hollywood movies, with explosion and bad guys dying left and right. We are close to the violence, almost next to the Joker. And we can feel its raw coldness which gives us all the magnitude of a murders, thus instilling in the spectator a fear of the Joker showing happiness and satisfaction in these horrifying acts. Maybe a slight regret as it may have been amplified a little more.
Finally, I think it is a very good movie with a very good performance by Joaquin Phoenix, giving back the Joker his rightful place as one of the most interesting super-villains after having been butchered by Jared Leto in Suicide Squad. I hope he continues to go in this direction and maybe open up a whole new wave of movies taking place in the Batman universe. A universe far darker than the Marvel one in which most of today’s super-hero movies takes place.
You’ll love it if you enjoyed: The Dark Knight trilogy, Taxi Driver, American Psycho, The Machinist.
Review with spoiler
As pointed out before, the atmosphere and the acting are the two main qualities of the movie. I think the one aspect that can be argued is the story itself.
First of all, Joker’s neighbor played by Zazie Beetz, I don’t think the side story where Joker is imagining having her as his girlfriend is necessary in the film. His distress is already explained by a lot of factors and this one seems to be just there but it doesn’t have a real, noticeable impact. It would have gained in reach if it was more central to the story. But then, it would be a movie about the difficulty of finding love and being rejected. And the Joker is not a character solely rejected by a woman but by the entire society.
Secondly, the presence of Batman and his father Thomas Wayne. The doubt is distilled in the fact that the Joker might be Batman’s half-brother. I think it’s interesting in the sense that it makes us understand the relationship between them. The Joker always seeking confrontation and Batman not killing him when given the opportunity. But Thomas Wayne has always been pictured as someone kind and seeking to help the poorest. And he is in this movie painted as a billionaire fighting for his own interest, manipulating the Joker’s mom and only feeling repulsion for the ones that he sees to be inferior to him.
I don’t understand how such a character could be idolized after his death by Alfred and Batman and be a symbol of Batman’s fight against crime.
The Joker will surely be one of the best movies of the year. Of course there is less competition than in the 00’s but it’s good to see a movie not made for the larger audience. And it is enjoyable to have a story and a view of society that makes you think about the flaws of our current environment. I don’t think it will be seen as a cinema classic but it’s a great super hero movie and some may prefer it to The Dark Knight which is for many considered as the best super-hero movie of the last 20 years.