It takes a certain commitment to go see Joker. Not because it’s a bad film but because viewers ask themselves a question: Do I want to spend two hours of my life watching a less good Joker than Heath Ledger? The answer is both yes, and no. Yes, because the film is like no comic book movie ever made, and No, because Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the Joker is as unrecognizable from Ledger’s Joker, as Ledger’s was from Nicholson’s. (omission: let’s all try to forget Jared Letto’s).
Simply put, there is no “living up to” needed in this film because this film is so vastly removed from the comic-book-movie genre that there’s nothing to live up to.
Before I went, I’d heard the film was “polarizing,” in its acclaim. Either you liked it, or you didn’t. There weren’t many “it was fine” verdicts out there. When we look back on what made Ledger’s performance so great, it was his mannerisms, his witticism, his always having a plan–even if he said he didn’t. Every turn of The Dark Knigh, showcased a criminal mastermind one step ahead of. . . well, everyone. With this in mind, I couldn’t help but grin as was in the theater last night. I couldn’t help but imagine a bunch of moviegoers expecting and excited to see how Joker became said mastermind. If that is what you’re hoping for, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
Joker is a film. It’s not a movie. It’s not a blockbuster. It’s a surprising artistic endeavor from a director who I had little faith in (The Hangover films were… never mind). Furthermore, to take the risk a produce a piece such as this is a risk, especially when viewers hear “Joker” and think Superhero, or at the very least Supervillain. There are no fast and cut action scenes. There’s not a great clip to the narrative in which things happen to keep the audience enthralled. There are no triumphs for the titular characters. There is nothing to overcome and or redeem. There are long slow shots of a lone figure in the rain, walking a dirty street, standing in an elevator, smoking a cigarette. Everything about this film is slow. Plodding. Painful. It is awkward and weighted. It is the life of the left-behinds.
In many ways, Joker feels like a film from another era. It’s all affected, of course, as all good films are, but beyond the obvious tributes to films in the later 70s and early 80s, just the long slowness of the movie is an existential exploration of what a comic-book movie can be. There’s a spectacular scene near the middle of the film right after a life-changing event, and looking back on it, it may be my favorite scene of all, when Joker finally comes out a bit and the audience is reminded that this isn’t just a devastating look into a depressing and bleak world, no. It’s about someone who’s insane but driven insane by a system that doesn’t and can’t acknowledge his experiences as valuable or even worth noting. There’s a great breakdown of the scene here. It’s something I thought I’d never see in a comic-book movie. A man broken so thoroughly that I wasn’t just waiting for the next plot twist or fight scene or quip. Instead, I was feeling broken. Beaten. Done. I wanted to move. To dance, like Joaquin Pheonix, because in a moment like that it made sense to dance or die–and obviously the Joker can’t die. So this slow sad dance is all that is, was, and can be of the Joker before Joker exists.
A special word should be noted on the score of this film. It’s one of the best, atmospheric scores I’ve ever heard. Akin to Annihilation’s score in terms of setting mood and tone, but I wager that Joker’s score is even more existential and nihilistic.
In the end, I really loved it. I did.
It’s the first comic-book movie that was also a film. It took risks. It didn’t dumb down anything. It was high brow art with pop-culture source material and I love that shit. It’s the first comic-inspired, superhero-inspired film that made me question my own life. That shines a light on our societal issues and asks, “Who are we listening to and why?” “Who matters and why?” “Who are we and why?”
I don’t know the answers to any of those questions. Nobody does. The Joker certainly doesn’t, but he’ll ask the questions with a smile and a laugh.
Joker is in theaters now, and how it’s painful to watch–at times, or even often–I’d not deny yourself this viewing experience. It’s a surprise and a risk. One that’s touching and welcome.