“Art is dangerous.” It’s a quote that has been passed around over the decades, and it’s something I tend to agree with. Over the weeks building up to the release of the film, there seems to be a manufactured panic about what could happen when Joker releases onto the big screen. In Aurora, Colorado they’ve elected to not show the film as a way to not trigger local residents that were involved in the 2012 shooting. This I can understand considering the shooter did indeed dress as the Joker when he committed his act of violence. As for other parts of the US, the local police and military have been placed on high alert, all because people are worried about the gun violence and how it may motivate deranged fans to go on shooting sprees. This obviously is not what the studios or filmmakers ever intended, but it is unfortunately a sign of the times that we are living in. No one should have to fear going to the movies. The theater for many is the place for audiences to escape for two hours and forget the troubles and the horrors of the real world, and my hope is audiences will be able to do so without violent incidents.
To be fair, Joker isn’t the first film to have the spotlight thrust upon it due to its violence, nor will it be the last. A part of me even wonders if the controversy was even manufactured to create more buzz for the film. After all, scaring audiences has always been a powerful tool in marketing, when you look back at the films of William Castle and Roger Corman. For some of their films audiences would have to sign waivers to ensure the studio wouldn’t be at fault if anything were to happen to audience members while watching the film, while having ambulances parked outside the movie house. Is it a stretch to believe the studios would do this? Maybe. But is it possible, considering how the box office is underperforming, that people will attempt to create buzz for the film? And then there are the political motivations, attempting to use a film in the fight for control. So many possibilities, so much controversy, and still as I write this, the film hasn’t even been released to the masses for them to judge for themselves.
Whether you read comic books or not, the Joker is simply a character you know. He’s a pop-culture icon that has a ravenous fan base that adores this villain. What director Todd Phillips gives us in Joker is not simply an origin story (one that bears little to no resemblance to what we’ve seen in the comics or films) and in telling this story he attempts to ground it in reality and humanize the character we first meet as Arthur Fleck. It’s a bold move, but what’s more impressive is he’s created an anti-hero, and because of the amazing performance from Joaquin Phoenix, he manages to make the character one we can sympathize with. Phoenix, who has been known for immersing himself into roles, has done so again in such a convincing manner it’s easy to forget this was the same guy who once played Johnny Cash (Walk the Line) or Commodus (Gladiator). Most likely this will be the role he will be most remembered for.
I know there will be those coming to the defense of Heath Ledger’s performance, and for the Nolan universe that Joker was perfect for those films, but for this film, it stands alone and you have to ignore canon. Sure, this is still the DC universe, and besides Joker we do see some familiar characters that inhabit Gotham City, but don’t expect any big superhero showdowns, because this is not that film. Very early in the production Martin Scorsese almost came onboard the project but had to back out due to filming The Irishman, but still this film has Scorsese’s influence all over it. Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy are the two films Joker most resembles, and as a fan of both of those films, I enjoyed what Philips delivers. As he was channeling those films I’m glad he was able to bring Robert Deniro on board to play a Johnny-Carson-like TV late night host, Murray Franklin. Arthur and his ill mother, Penny (Frances Conroy) have a nightly routine of watching the Murray Franklin show, and Arthur has big dreams of becoming a comedian and one day being on the late night show. It’s these dreams that give a glimpse into how unbalanced Arthur is as we see him escape reality and interact with this dream world, and as the film plays out, we have to wonder how much of it is real and how much of it he has created.
The script from Todd Phillips and Scott Silver is something fresh and unexpected from the guy that brought us The Hangover movies and Old School. Over his career he’s done some pretty good films; War Dogs is a great underappreciated film, for instance. Even in his early years he did a documentary on GG Allen (for those that really go down the rabbit hole with Joker, you’ll see an Easter egg in the film that connects to another “evil” clown). For those thinking Phillips may not have the skills to tackle this project, prepare to be surprised.
The visual choices this film makes are another key to what makes this such a visceral experience. We often times see Arthur in alleyways, or on staircases between buildings or in closed spaces, and this simply gives visual cues to signify the isolation the character is feeling and experiencing. Then there is the visual color scheme and grime the film has that gives it that late 70’s early 80’s film style that helps capture the filthy New York vibe of Gotham in the early 80’s. Along with the strength of the visuals, the score by Hildur Guonadottir is phenomenal, easily one of the best scores of the year, and does a great job at enhancing the films often intense moments. There are a variety of older songs that work their way into the film as well. We got a glimpse of this in the trailers, but it doesn’t do the film justice. All I’ll give away is when Rock N Roll Part 2 by Gary Glitter kicks in, it’s an epic moment that takes the film into a great final act.
As for the actual violence in the film, I felt this needed to be saved for last, because I really want people on the fence with this film to know there is a lot of good stuff in this film and that it’s worth seeing no matter what. We see early on in the film how Arthur is the victim of violence and how the people all around him treat him badly. There are a few exceptions, but for the most part this film reflects society and how many view our mentally ill. We know they exist, but we’d rather look the other way and ignore them till it’s too late: either they die, or they do something horrible. When Arthur commits his first act of violence, you can understand it. You may not agree with it, but on a certain level you can see why it happened. As the film progresses we see how the media depicts the victims, but surprisingly it’s how the people of Gotham react, and we see an uprising occurring between the rich and the poor. This is unnerving, and it should be for audiences, because this is a very real scenario that we’ve seen before and could be taken to a larger scale. This all continues to build to the third act, and it’s this third act that I feel is what makes this film great, and makes it art with something very powerful to say. In many ways it’s a poke at the “woke” generation, but like most works of art, people will all come away with a different opinion, but I hope this can create a discussion.
For those wondering if they should take a risk and see the film … I’m a firm believer that films don’t create violent people; instead it’s done by those that are already sick to begin with. Don’t let fear win; at the end of the day, it is only a movie. I’d recommend not bringing younger kids (under 12) to this film simply because it’s rated R with good reason. If anything, when leaving this film you should realize that there are numerous Arthur Flecks in the world and how much you can actually do to make a difference by being a little nicer to each other.
Joker is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The ultra-high-definition 2160p image is arrived at by an HEVC codec with greatly variable bit rate that drops into the teens and peaks in the upper 70’s. Not sure why it jumps so much, but there are some notable differences in the quality of this ultra-high-definition image presentation. The good news is that while the film was indeed shot on digital, it was shot primarily in 5K, and the intermediate was a true 4K master. The HDR delivers superior colors, but only to a certain extent. The film by design is rather desaturated throughout. The stand-out vivid scenes include the Franklin Murray set and tight shots of the Joker’s makeup. But don’t expect the bright green hair or flashy red smile. Even these colors are darker than the traditional depictions. What the Joker’s makeup lacks in bright color it more than makes up for in detail and texture. While being applied, the white-face has a very distinct cake-like surface. The detail also allows you a very sharp image of the actor’s eyes, and it makes the performance that much more atmospheric. Black levels are tight but a bit shady to help bring out that 70’s-film-stock feel. There is little doubt that this film is the best digital live action film I’ve encountered on this format. If filmmakers start to utilize these higher bit-rates, digital can truly be appreciated. But as long as filmmakers continue to shoot in 2K, with theaters and home screens in 4K and now beginning the switch to 8K, the difference between film and digital will remain staggering in these higher resolution formats. This is much more than an upconvert, and a welcome change.
The Atmos track defaults to a pretty solid 7.1 mix. At first the film lives very little in the surrounds. I had to check my settings because there just wasn’t much coming through, but soon enough they kick in with some rather sweet placement work. Crystal clear shouts startle you from behind. Rain surrounds you quite nicely. The subs kick in particularly as the character makes his full transformation and then peaking with the riots that finish the film. Subs take over almost completely as there is no dialog in the final moments except for crowd noises that work purely from the surrounds. Dialog cuts through very well, and I love the moments of silence that often come before the character’s hysterical laughter. It provides an eerie contrast that only adds to the performance. It’s a disturbing collection of moments that are often fed directly by the audio presentation.
The extras are all on the Blu-ray copy of the film.
Becoming Joker: (1:25) Here we have some footage cut together from the makeup and costume tests.
Joker. Vision & Fury: (22:25) Easily the best feature here, where we get a more in-depth look at the making of the film. One of the best portions gets into the process director Todd Philips shared with Joaquin Phoenix about the character. A lot of focus is on the bathroom scene after the subway shooting.
Please Welcome…Joker!: (2:44) While there are no deleted scenes on this disc, what we get here are a collection of alternate takes from when Joker makes his big appearance on his favorite late-night talk show.
Joker: A Chronicle of Chaos: (3:04) This is a collection of still images from the film cut together with the score playing over it.
I don’t think anyone was expecting this to have the massive impact on the box office that it did, but I was happy to see it. This is a pretty divisive film. Despite the film’s success, I continue to love the film after numerous viewings, and I was happy to see Phoenix get the accolades that are well deserved for this performance. While this is relatively barebones on extras, I’d expect to see some special editions released for the film down the road.
Parts of this review were written by Gino Sassani