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Blu-ray Review: Joker

January 7, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

There were few films in 2019 that made as much pre-release noise as Joker did. Directed by Todd Phillips, in a radical change of pace from comedies like The Hangover and Old School, the R-rated film offers a dark and gritty take on the Batman villain’s origin story that is different from any other comic book movie.

The film made headlines when it premiered in competition at Venice and went on to win the Golden Lion, an award that, in the past few years alone, has been bestowed upon the likes of Roma and The Shape of Water. The win shocked many, and set the stage for the often tense discourse around the film, which continued through TIFF.

Then there was the media, which spent the weeks leading up to the film’s theatrical release warning that it would surely cause real world violence with its eerily believable portrayal of a mentally ill loner turning to crime, to the degree that it almost seemed like they were hoping a mass shooting or some other egregious act of violence would happen at one of the screenings so as to discredit the film’s message.

Thankfully, nothing happened, and instead Joker went on to gross a billion dollars worldwide and the film became a genuine cultural phenomenon, both in spite of and perhaps precisely because of all this controversy surrounding it. One of the aspects of the film that did spill over into the real world is the clown mask and makeup, which is used in the film to stand up against rich elites who look down upon the lower classes of society, and has now been taken as a symbol of fighting back against government oppression, including being used by pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

The film is set in a darkened version of Gotham City in 1981, and at the start of it there is a garbage strike going on that has already plunged the city into near-crisis. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a clown-for-hire, working for a company that rents out clowns for different purposes, and his current gig involves waving a sign outside of a store that is closing down. But then his sign is stolen by a group of kids in the film’s opening sequence, who subsequently smash it to pieces over his head and beat the shit out of him in an alley. He lies there in pain, and we get the sense this isn’t the first time that something like this has happened to him. Cue the title card.

Arthur lives in an old, rundown apartment, and is attracted to his neighbour, a single mother named Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz), who lives in the building with her young daughter. He spends his nights taking care of his sick, elderly mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy), who obsessively writes letters to her old boss, businessman Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who is readying a run for mayor. But Arthur’s real dream is to pursue a career in standup comedy, and he fantasizes about being noticed by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), who hosts a late night talk show that he watches with his mother. He has been raised to believe that it’s his job to bring laughter to the world, but he struggles to be funny.

Arthur has an unnamed neurological condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably in inappropriate situations. Not only is he a standup comic who isn’t funny but, in the ultimate tragedy, it’s also physically painful for him to laugh. When Arthur, wearing full clown makeup, snaps and has a violent altercation with three young businessmen who are harassing him for laughing on the subway, he inadvertently inspires a populist uprising against the rich of Gotham City, with working class citizens donning clown masks to protest against the elites. Things quickly start to spiral out of control, fuelling his ascension into becoming the Clown Prince of Crime.

At the heart of Joker is Joaquin Phoenix, who delivers a stunning, transformative performance as the iconic villain, dropping over fifty pounds to take on the part. Phoenix shows a level of commitment to his role here that is mesmerizing to watch, and there is a real physicality to his performance. Arthur often dances around, almost as if, in his own mind, he is living in a musical. Icelandic composer and cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir contributes an incredible musical score to the film that she wrote based on the script, so Phoenix could listen to it on set and act to her music.

What instantly stands out about Joker is how accomplished the film is on a technical level. Phillips has crafted a very well made film that is heavily inspired by the work of Martin Scorsese, namely Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, which are clear influences on the plot. It’s worth noting Scorsese was initially going to produce the film before dropping out. The production design is exceptional, transporting us to the rundown streets of Gotham, which is heavily inspired by New York in the 1970s before it got cleaned up. Lawrence Asher’s gritty cinematography perfectly recalls the look and feel of films from the era.

This is one of the darkest and most controversial big studio movies in quite some time, and as much as I want to commend Warner Bros. for putting it out, I also understand why some have reacted negatively to it. Phillips has made an angry and reactionary movie, which is fitting because we are living in angry, reactionary times. But what some seem to be missing when criticizing the movie’s anger is that art is allowed to be provocative and transgressive, because art is meant to help us process things that are happening in the real world. Yes, some will surely misinterpret the film’s message, as is the case with some art, but artists don’t really have control over what individual viewers take from their work.

One of the criticisms levelled against Joker is that the film is too sympathetic towards Arthur, but I would counter that by arguing that the film understands that you can have sympathy for someone and feel sorry for them without agreeing with their actions or liking what they do. Arthur is a very troubled character, and the tragedy of the film is that he is stuck in an uncaring world that either acts like he doesn’t exist or kicks him when he’s down, and he is ultimately failed by a system that allows him to become the Joker. Arthur has access to a therapist (Sharon Washington), but when funding gets cut by the city, he stops being able to see her and loses access to his medication as well.

This is primarily a film about the people who fall through the cracks of society, and if Joker has any one political message, it’s about the need for better funding for mental health services. This is a disturbing and extremely unsettling character study of a broken, bullied and abused man reaching his breaking point. The film shocks us with moments of grotesque violence, and has a deep, nihilistic dread running through it that permeates every frame. No, Joker is not always pleasant or easy to watch, but it’s a work that is meant to challenge us, and Phoenix’s performance in the title role is never less than gripping.

The Blu-ray includes a small selection of bonus features, the best of which is the 22 minute featurette Joker: Vision & Fury, which offers a solid look at the production of the film and original genesis for the story. Rounding out the supplemental package are Becoming Joker, a short piece showing early camera tests of Phoenix getting into character; Please Welcome…Joker!, which compiles a collection of alternate takes from Arthur’s entrance onto Murray’s show; and Joker: A Chronicle of Chaos, which is a collection of film stills arranged in chronological order and set to music.

Joker is a Warner Bros. Home Entertainment release. It’s 122 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: January 7th, 2020

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