Joker. Just Give Joaquin The Oscar
Saw Joker twice this week. Once on opening night and again over the weekend. I enjoyed it immensely both times and had even more appreciation for the film upon second viewing. In a time of superhero films being known for their epic scale, special effects, and shared universes, it was refreshing to see such a grounded origin story for perhaps the most famous (and infamous) villain in all of comic books. Additionally in a time of politically correct, agenda driven films coming out of Hollywood, it was nice to see a film be just about telling a great story instead of making some sort of ham-fisted political/social statement based around current day trends. I personally go to the movies to escape from reality and Joker delivers.
Now about the film itself.
Everything from the writing to performances is just downright brilliant. Joaquin Phoenix is hypnotic from the opening to final sequence. I was describing the film to a friend and for the first time in my life, I used the word “gripping” to describe an acting performance. He is so believable in the role of Arthur Fleck/Joker, going from sane to off his rocker with ease. From happy to sad in a way that makes you smile and/or genuinely feel sorry for the man he’s portraying. I hold Heath Ledger’s performance in high regard, but as of now Phoenix’s Joker is by far my favorite of them all. Although he doesn’t go toe-to-toe with the Dark Knight like Ledger’s Joker, there’s something about this one that makes me think he’d go even further to get one up on Batman if he’s pushed. What also makes Phoenix’ portrayal so captivating is how believable it all is. From his body language to subtle but powerful changes of expression, you believe he’s mentally ill, hurt, angry, lonely, and all sorts of other moods that he portrays. Talk about range and depth in a character!
Not only was Phoenix brilliant, but all the supporting cast as well. Robert De Niro shines as a Johnny Carson-esque host of a popular late night talk show, Frances Conroy plays the believable troubled/worried mother to Arthur, and Brett Cullen plays a great confident yet indifferent Thomas Wayne. Those are some of the heavy hitters, but it’s the smaller performances that really stood out to me. There’s a scene where Arthur visits Gotham Asylum to retrieve some documents. The clerk brings them in and the conversation is one of the most real convos I’ve heard in cinema. The actor playing the clerk seems like a guy you’d come across at your local retail store. Just making small banter and trying to keep his job. Just brilliant.
Tension in the film is palpable. There’s lots of moments where you think Arthur will finally become the clown prince, but manages to hold it together. When he finally loses it, you find yourself conflicted. You know what he’s going to do and you know it’s wrong, but somehow you want to root for this guy.
The pacing is also great, building steady as things escalate which goes well with the aforementioned tension of the film. I found myself thinking of M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. Like Joker, Unbreakable is a slow burn, but really ramps up in the end. It also has similar emotional moments that are sometimes heart-wrenching from how sad they are to moving to how sweet they are.
The cinematography is also beautiful with shot after gorgeous shot of a grimy, but surprisingly colorful Gotham City. By contrast, Christopher Nolan’s Gotham was much more gray tones, but Phillip’s rendition of the crime ridden city is full of pops of color be it cars, graffiti on the walls, or the sun. It’s New York or Chicago in the 80’s at the height of old school hip hop, but still gritty enough to feel like a dangerous place to be. The pops of color keeps the visuals interesting and contrast well with the themes in the film.
Seeing the initial trailer for Joker many months ago, I recall saying it looked like it was going to be incredible. The film exceeded my expectations and I can’t wait to see it once again. I’m a total movie nerd, so I can watch a film a million times and never get tired of it if I like it. For me, Joker is one of those films. It’s even doing great at the box office. I hope that with it’s success this style of film doesn’t become the norm for superhero films, but shows Hollywood that you can do a grounded film without macguffins, tons of CG, and jokes yet still have a film people love to watch. It’s all about great storytelling and performances at the end of the day. And I also hope they don’t aim for a sequel or crossover with a Batman film. Let this incredible film remain its own beautiful thing.
Oh and please give Joaquin an Oscar for his potrayal. It’s well deserved. Best film too.
What did you think about Joker? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.