Joaquin Phoenix as Joker

Joker: reflections

The other week I had the pleasure (not quite sure that’s the right word) of seeing Joker.

When I heard the studios were planning to do a movie featuring the Joker character, I met the news with trepidation. I am still awed by Heath Ledger’s performance in the Dark Knight, which for me had become the “definitive” portrayal of the character. I admire Jared Leto’s abilities, but Suicide Squad was not his finest moment, and that experience had left me a little concerned.

I’d read a few reviews and seen a few murmurings on Facebook that it was a film to watch, so I ventured forth.

Soooo glad I did. It is one of the best films I’ve seen in a long, long time. I would consider it a “favourite” after just one viewing. I suspect it will become one of my “classics” in due course, but repeat viewings will be needed before I can make that call.

As much as I love the genre, I wouldn’t have thought that a comic-based movie could have such depth and layers, but wow. Just wow.

SPOILER ALERT: I’m trying not to include any outright spoilers in here, but you may want to skip reading if you haven’t seen it yet, but plan to.

First up, this film is just a prime example of great film-making.

Beautifully shot, well-scripted, amazing acting, and terrific directing. Not a single computer generated shot, if I recall correctly.

Engaging, powerful, tonally on point.

Joaquin Phoenix presents here a tremendous performance. Transforming from a gentle, misunderstood character at the start, to show the beginnings of the super-villian we are more familiar with.

His physical transformation is stunning and serves the character well.

What I really love about this is that we are seeing a true “origin” story. We see him before he is Joker. But we don’t see him magically become the fully-fledged character. We see the beginnings of this journey. And the film is all the better for it. It can take its time, rather than whisking us from one point to the other.

We don’t yet see the intricate scenarios being created with so many moving parts, but with an ultimate goal of chaos. But we see how that is starting to take form.

One of the things about the Joker character I’ve had a question mark over is how someone who loves chaos so much, who embraces the fallout of a failed attempts and rides with where it takes things, can be a leader of a band of followers. This film does the character a great service by showing how that could come about.

He doesn’t so much rise to “the top”, but fall into the role of figurehead much to his own amusement and seeming confusion.

But embrace it he does, and we see that beginning to shine through in the final moments of the film.

If a sequel was forthcoming, I’d be delighted to see it cover this territory—how he goes from stumbling through the chaos into orchestrating it. But to be frank, any sequel by this pairing of director and actor will see me there in a heartbeat.

I’ve been told I tolerate a high-degree of violence in films. I personally disagree, but with this film I know one of the concerns people have is of it being heavy on the violence.

I wouldn’t recommend it to someone that is over that aspect of modern film-making. And I don’t “justify” violence in films—I’m not terribly enamoured with it even when I do watch violent films.

I was thinking about this one, though, and in reflection I was surprised that there is such little overt violence in the spotlight. Much of it is inferred.

There are two scenes in particular though, where the spotlight is on a direct violent act. I question whether the film would have such impact without them. This is a rare case, in my view, where the violence depicted is genuinely in aid of us understanding the character’s development. How they become who they become.

And even then, one of the most violent scenes is actually not that “bad” by contemporary standards. But in the context of the film it feels so much darker. And impacting. You feel it in a way that cuts through the de-sensitising effect of so many “blow em up, shoot em up” action films of our era.

One aspect of Joaquin’s performance in this I wanted to single out.

Right up front: it is absolutely clear this is Joaquin’s take on the character. He owns it. Absolutely owns it.

Yet somehow he manages to make his portrayal feel like the same character that we see in Heath Ledger’s performance (age notwithstanding.)

There is something in the small mannerisms, the way he moves, the facial expressions, that seem to echo Ledger’s, without aping it.

There’s a couple of points where he dances. There’s something in the laugh. There’s a clumsiness and frailty in the way he runs (which is beautifully tied to the character’s start as a clown performer.)

So many of those ticks and mannerisms are kinda explained—most are not overt, there’s just hinting going on and subtle expression that ties it together.

I don’t know if Joaquin was aiming for this or not (as noted above, I’ve deliberately avoided reading reviews or interviews before writing this, because I wanted to capture my thoughts and feelings about it, rather than regurgitating stuff I’d read, even unintentionally.) But to me, as a fan of that film, there’s a sense of true homage, not a derivation, in the whole thing.

There is a high degree of social commentary going on in the film, inspired no doubt by the current political climate. While overt, it didn’t feel overbearing or overly pointed, to me at least (but I am a bit of a lefty, as y’all probably know.)

Robert De Niro’s character presents and especially prescient critique of the personality-driven media landscape. But the painting of Thomas Wayne’s (Bruce’s father) is really well done—he’s certainly not someone we’re rooting for.

I really like the connection to the Wayne family that is made in this film. It makes sense in some way of the hatred Joker holds for authority and people at the top, and Wayne in particular. But the story also creates a connection to the young Bruce that makes sense of the twisted sense of affection that Joker holds for Batman.

The link to Batman’s origin doesn’t feel heavy-handed, even though in lesser hands it would have been bludgeoning. The “butterflies effect” arc is so, so well done.

As I get more distance from it, and I hope through repeated viewings, I’m sure more will come out.

All I can say right now is that I highly recommend it.

A fabulous bit of film making.

I have a sense it’s going to be considered one of the greats in years to come.