When I signed up to review Joker back at the beginning of the year, I had no idea what I was signing myself up for. “Oh great, another DC movie and another on-screen iteration of the Joker,” were the extent of my thoughts and (admittedly low) expectations.
Yet, Joker is nothing like the fun-but-forgetful frolicking of Shazam or even the well-crafted world of the Dark Knight trilogy. It became obvious from the first trailer, but even more so when watching the film in its entirety, that Joker is nothing like the superhero movies that have become so prevalent in today’s box office offerings. In fact, I’m not sure it even fits in the genre at all (nor do I think it especially wants to).
The movie follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man from Gotham City who is trying to make ends meet, take care of his mother, and pursue his dream of performing stand-up comedy. But none of that is easy for Fleck, who struggles with significant mental illness, including a condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate times. Yet Fleck’s world isn’t one of super-humans flying through the sky or alien races vying for power. No, his world could very much be our world and our city — and the movie doesn’t let you forget that.
The R rating alone hints that the movie is a bit mature, but calling this movie “dark” is a severe understatement. It’s objectively unpleasant to watch as Fleck devolves into violent tendencies that play out in graphic detail on screen. Perhaps that’s why it took me so long to review this film — in many ways, it has been all I can think of. But thinking about it too closely, too analytically, is uncomfortable. It holds up an unsettling mirror to some very real issues facing those in our society who need help and are unable to get it. It tackles class disparity, gun violence, and even the implications of being entertained by the failures of others. It also leaves you wondering if the whole thing went just a bit too far. A coworker summed it up well in a text to me after seeing Joker: “Oh my god, I feel ruined.”
While the movie’s depictions of violence and mental illness may be too much for some viewers, it’s also important to note that the movie is — in many ways — beautifully done. The acting, especially on the part of Phoenix, is superb. The cinematography is stunning. The soundtrack is haunting. In many ways, Joker is a work of art that you can’t help appreciating.
Ultimately, while the movie’s main characters and setting originate from the pages of comic books, the movie could easily exist as a standalone drama if the names changed. This feels very different than any other cinematic portrayal of a “super villain” because of how remarkably ordinary Fleck is. In fact, those without strong feelings toward Batman and his arch-nemesis — and how sympathetic this movie makes the Joker — may enjoy Joker more.
Would I suggest seeing this movie? Yes, but with a word of warning for those who may struggle with the darker components. They say good art makes you think, and Joker certainly fits that bill.
Photos: Warner Bros.