Is it worth watching Joker?
Writing about new films is not something I’ve done a lot of on this blog, but I think this is entirely warranted. On the 12/10/19, I took the plunge and went to see the new Joker film with Joaquin Phoenix as our eponymous hero(well, kind of).
I want to begin this by laying down a few quick guides for what you’re about to read. Firstly, i’m going to keep spoilers to an absolute minimum - there’s not much point in writing a “should you watch”, if I’m just going to tell you what happens, right? Secondly, I’m going to break down the film into three categories and provide a score out of 5 for each of those points. Finally, I’m going to summarise by telling you if you should take the plunge and spend your hard earned dollars on this film.
So, to decide if Joker is worth watching, let’s start by looking at the story.
The Joker has about as many origin stories across multiple media , as a medieval king had illegitimate children. I think this is fairly common place; every generation has had their Spiderman origin story, for example. But with most films, they stay firmly implanted within the high-budget, effects-packing, arse-kicking comic book adaptation which we have grown to expect. I don’t mean to sound dismissive of that kind of film, I think they serve a similar function to the MGM musicals of old, but, perhaps controversially, I don’t consider them great works of cinema.
Joker is different. It’s at it’s very inception that Joker is made to feel real. It’s a very visceral film, one which in many ways you feel as much as you watch. For it’s part, the story does a great job of humanising, and indeed dehumanising a character who could all too easily end up as a copy and paste comic book adaptation villain.
We follow Arthur Fleck, who I don’t feel it is too much of a spoiler to also call Joker, on his descent into madness. Or perhaps further into madness. He’s working as a clown-for-hire when we first meet him, a suitably unsettling job, given the horror-clown milieu we currently in. But Arthur has dreams. He wants to be a comedian, he wants to make people laugh. In many ways, this simple ambition acts as a driving force for a big chunk of the film - but not all of it.
For obvious reasons, I’m not going to go any further into detail about the story, so here’s where we get slightly more abstract. The story is, in general, exceptional. As I said before, there’s something really palpable about it, and the way it shows the descent of the main character. It takes mental illness as a core principle, plays around with fallibility and secrets in such a masterful way, that I think it would be a shock if the script didn’t win any awards.
The film is also peppered with elements of dark humour, and little flashes of comedy, which one may expect from a director such as Todd Phillips, of Hangover fame. These pieces never feel forced, but slot nicely within the context of the character as we follow him on his journey to becoming the Joker.
If I was to make a criticism, I would say that there are periods of the film which rely on exposition too much, but I get it - it’s in Joker’s head, so the best way to get it out is to have him say it, but it does make some important scenes feel a little less impactful than they could have been. My only other criticism of the story is that there is one scene in particular, right at the end of the movie which pulled me out of the world because of how absurd the actions of other characters were towards the situation. Considering this is one of the most important scenes in the film, it was a little disappointing.
All in all though, I would have to give Joker a ⅘ for story. It’s issues, whilst they are there, are amply covered up by the general direction which it takes.
Parallels have been made between this film and the work of Scorcese, and I think this is a rather fair comparison,but there is more to it than that.
The first thing to discuss is the colour palette. The film is strikingly dark, and unashamedly 80’s. Browns, yellows, maroons are the order of the day, and I bloody love it. There is no denying, even for someone with the fashion sense of a tuna fish in a jacobean ruff like myself, the 80’s are cool right now. Look at some of the biggest media franchises of recent times. IT, Stranger Things, Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch. So, this film slots very nicely into an era which I would suggest we call 1980’s Mark II. Stylistically, the film takes more than the colour pallette from this era. For example, it’s titling is a garish yellow, like something from a Tarantino film. All together, this makes is feel much more real than a lot of other “superhero” films, and I get the distinct impression that that is the point.
There are two shots in particular shots I wanted to talk about from the film. When I left the cinema, these are the two shots I wanted to talk about with my girlfriend, simply because of how fantastic they were.
Firstly, there’s a scene where we see Arthur from behind. He’s topless, showing the skeletal frame Phoenix has developed for the film. He’s hunched over, but moving. A creaking noise teases us that he’s up to something. The movement is slow, allowing us to speculate what he’s doing. His form, and the position he’s in is very dehumanising. He’s almost like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings. Eventually, we get the pay off. The sound is actually Arthur stretching his clown shoes, nothing more. There is a distinct artistry to this shot, in dehumanising Joker, we are made immediately aware that normal human social rules do not apply to him. He’s someone who we don’t know what to expect from. This single shot encapsulates the character so well.
My second highlight is right near the start. We see Arthur sat in a room, laughing. We’re close up to his face, which is the sole focus of the camera. We linger there for just a moment, then cut to a slightly wider shot, showing us the more detail in the room. We linger there too. Finally, we cut to an over the shoulder shot of Arthur. He’s not alone, he’s infact sat with his therapist. This scene builds in a way which reminds me of Shaun of the Dead’s first sequence, introducing one character at a time, and whilst Edgar Wright uses it there to magnificent comic effect, Todd Phillips instead uses it here for characterisation. We instantly get the impression that there’s something wrong with Fleck, which, as with the scene above seeks to separate him from typical human values right from the get go.
In terms of look, I think Joker is one of the best i’ve seen. If a picture is worth a thousand words, than cinematographer Lawrence Sher’s work must be worth a million. 5/5. Simple.
To die-hard comic book fans, there’s only really one major draw to this film: Joker. I imagine that a lot of people, like myself, went into the film with two prevailing thoughts of the character. 1) There’s no way that this can be any better than Heath Ledger. 2) There’s no way that this can be worse than Jared Leto. Let’s start with the Leto question, since that is the one which left the foulest taste in the mouths of many a fan. No, Phoenix is not worse than Leto. It would be nye impossible to be. Even if you cast a diarrhetic Llama to the role, it wouldn’t be worse than Leto. See? That was easy, wasn’t it?
But the Ledger question certainly isn’t. I walked into the cinema thinking, “this will be okay, but not anywhere near as good as Ledger”. When I left the cinema though, I just didn’t know. Joker allows us to get to know the character a lot better than the superhero framework of The Dark Knight allowed, so Phoenix has a distinct advantage there. I think Phoenix also benefits from the real, visceral feel of the film, over the near-Sci-Fi of Nolan’s film. But there is no denying that Ledger’s command of the character was masterful. He knew every muscle movement, the delivery of every line, and lived the character. Phoenix, by the nature of the film, feels like he’s playing 2, maybe 3 characters, with the Joker being the end product.
Unfortunately, I have to conclude parity. I can’t make a decision at this moment as to who is the best Joker. I think they’re both different, but both very good.
I think, therefore, I would have to give the Joker in this film a 5/5.
I think you may be able to see from my rather high scores that I do think it’s worth going to see Joker. From it’s beautiful cinematography, to its representation of the character, I think this is a film we’re going to be referencing for years to come. At the very least, you’ll have a bit more of a grasp on why literally everyone is wearing red suits and mustard waistcoats on Halloween!
So, if you haven’t seen the Joker yet, are thinking about going? What is drawing you to it, and what’s putting you off?
If you have seen it, what did you think of it? Let me know! @Darken_Corridor.