Joker

"I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realize it's a comedy."

I can probably count on one hand the number of films that are so hard to watch that you cannot fathom a reason to watch them again. Except they are so good that eventually you need to remember why, so you put yourself through the experience again. This is one of those films.

Sometimes I forget that I'm a writer. When I'm not writing my own reviews, I often look for other opinions. What do other people think of a piece of entertainment? It’s easy to defer to others to form a basis for what is acceptable. This movie evokes such strong emotions and forces you to sympathize and understand the actions of a truly warped mind. In this case, it almost feels necessary to seek out what everyone else thinks about this film. Which is why I believe there is controversy surrounding this movie.

I wonder, though, are we so fragile that we cannot have stories that force us to face difficult and even painful truths? Is this movie unpleasant to watch? Absolutely. I left the theater feeling heavy, coated in a layer of sick having watched a two-hour tragedy. This movie was designed to make you uncomfortable… and it was probably the best film of the year.

Okay, enough cryptic warnings and backhanded praise. Let me explain what I mean. There are some minor spoilers going forward, but nothing related to plot. There have been rumors of a stand alone Joker movie that has been germinating in the Warner Brothers' brain trust for a long time. I believe it was first floated all the way back with Jack Nicholson, but of course that was never going to work.

More recently, the idea was broached alongside the Jared Leto version of the character, and since public opinion soured to his interpretation pretty quickly, that seems to have been scrapped almost immediately. As far as I know Leto is no longer playing the Joker in any upcoming film, which is a shame; he wasn’t that bad in a movie that didn’t do him any favors.

The main problem is a little like what happened to Gotham. How do you tell the story of Batman’s greatest foe without the main character? As a creative experiment, it is not an easy thing to answer. Is there even a purpose for a Joker without Batman? Well, it depends on who is telling the story. I have to give Warner Brothers some credit for giving this project the green light. It had to sound like a loser on paper.

Let's set this in the 80’s, give the Joker a backstory and even a mother. Let's give him a girlfriend, and some sympathetic motivations. Honestly, that sounds awful. The whole point is that he is a nobody, with no ties and nothing to lose. He is the embodiment of the id, living life as though any action, even the darkest acts of violence, is a joke. Even his relationship with Harley is superficial and dangerously unstable. (To be clear, Harley is not in this film.)

Yet somehow, those elements make this story work. This Joker wouldn’t be this Joker without this very specific set of personal struggles and relationships. Make no mistake, this is the Joker. He has some of the best Joker moments I’ve ever seen. The movie exists in Gotham as a living, breathing part of the plot. The Waynes loom heavily as almost antagonists to the story, occasionally pushing the narrative, but mostly as a constant reminder that this story is going in a very specific direction.

All of which rests entirely on Joaquin Phoenix, who disappears into this role. He is this character so completely that he rivals Heath Ledger. What’s even more impressive is that this is a different take than what we’ve seen before. It isn’t a re-imagining, because the core of the character is intact. While we didn’t need this movie, and probably didn’t want the question answered on whether a Joker movie could work, I am glad this was made.

4 out of 4 Clowns

J.D. Balthazar is a confirmed nerd who loves most things sci-fi or fantasy-related.

1 comment:

Aaron Studer said...

Great read, I've been waiting to see if someone would step up to the plate to review this one. This movie works on every level: it works as a comic book film, it works as an origin story for The Joker, it works as an homage to Scorsese classics from the 70's, it even works as a great piece of social commentary in certain parts of the movie as well.

The best way I've been describing the supposed 'controversy' of this film to others is by highlighting how The Simpsons was received in 1990 when it first premiered. To sum it up, Joker and The Simpsons are products of their time, and are 'counter-culture' in a way. Early Simpsons reveled in exposing personal and familial issues (such as depression, bullying, neglect of responsibilities) that other sitcoms at the time were ignoring, and as a result, critics of the show deemed it 'un-American'. I feel it's the same concept with Joker, as it is a film subtly touching on these country-wide dilemmas many are just unfortunately not willing to talk about.