You Won’t Be Laughing At “Joker”

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You Won’t Be Laughing At “Joker”

Sebastian Hunt, The Forum's Head Writer of Film & TV

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★★★★

Todd Phillips’ Joker, an ultra-dark origin story for Batman’s most famous foe, was a film bound to happen. In this age of superhero oversaturation, a film centered around villains – much less the definitive comic-book villain – was an inevitability.

However, I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted a film quite like this. Not because the film is grim, several superhero films have been on the darker side. Rather, the tone, the atmosphere, the scale (or lack thereof), and the cold, unsettlingly intimate narrative feel alien to this genre. Forget the somber attitudes of The Dark Knight or Logan, Joker makes both films seem relatively cheery by comparison.

Despite wanting desperately to emulate the style and mood of Martin Scorsese’s filmography, Joker emerges as a product far more at home with the likes of Darren Aronfosky. Aronofsky – director of Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, and mother! – has made a name for himself via crafting bleak, calculatingly unnerving films built on misery but embedded with strong socio-political messages.

“Unnerving” is the word that seals the comparison for me. Joker is, without question, an unnerving film. It’s not so much conventionally entertaining as it is chillingly compelling; Joker will burn itself into your brain whether you like it or not. On that note, I must add that Joker is not, in any sense of the word, a children’s film. It’s hardly a Batman film – save for a few references here and there, the Caped Crusader is largely absent in all forms.

The second, perhaps more overt reason for my comparison lies in quality. Like the majority of Aronfosky’s work, Joker is a film of incredible quality. Phillips, after dabbling in comedy for the better part of his career, has truly outdone himself. Joker is outstandingly well-shot and directed. Phillips utilizes a number of close and low-angle shots, ultimately giving the film an unmistakably eerie aura.

The majority of the credit for the film’s success, however, rests squarely on the shoulders of Joaquin Phoenix, who headlines as the titular villain. Phoenix, without question, is brilliant. His iteration of The Joker is not only the strongest portrayal of the character to date but also one of the best performances of his entire career, which is exceptional praise given his pedigree. He’s creepy, quirky, and deliciously frightening – I’d argue that he outshines Heath Ledger’s legendary take in The Dark Knight.

While Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, and a number of other talented performers are present, they largely take a backseat to Phoenix and thus aren’t afforded much consistent screentime. And rightfully so – this is a character piece first and foremost, and Phoenix should be allowed as much of the scenery as is necessary.

The score is low-key and slow-moving, fitting the film’s unhurried pace. Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir creates a theme that will no doubt become instantly synonymous with the Clown Prince of Crime, cementing it as one of the all-time great Batman themes alongside Hans Zimmer’s now-famous composition of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.

Is Joker a masterpiece? Despite its technical and narrative heights, I’d still argue that it falls just short of being transcendently great. The film’s themes are a tad-bit on the nose, some of the dialogue comes out forced, and the story occasionally veers into self-indulgency. However, as far as superhero (or supervillain) films go, things rarely get better than this. Joker is a gritty, riveting cinematic experience that ranks with the very best of the genre and absolutely deserves your viewership.

 

Ratings Key:

★ – Bad (e.g., Godzilla ‘98, Pixels, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, Justice League

★★ – Mediocre (e.g., Incredibles 2, Watchmen, Alice in Wonderland, Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle)

★★★ – Good (e.g., Creed II, Batman, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Pretty In Pink, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective)

★★★★ – Great (e.g., Jurassic Park, The Empire Strikes Back, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Social Network)

★★★★★ – Amazing (e.g., Dr. Strangelove, The Terminator, The Dark Knight, Back to the Future, Skyfall)

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