The Joker has always been a plum part for character actors to make their own. We thought Jack Nicholson’s portrayal in Tim Burton’s Batman was definitive until we realised how wrong we were when Heath Ledger knocked it out of the park in Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Since then we’ve seen a very good turn from Jared Leto in Suicide Squad and while he might argue his best bits were left on the cutting room floor, I actually thought he came closer to how imagine the Joker from the comics than the other two.
However, when I heard that Joaquin Phoenix was starring in this movie dedicated to telling the back story of every Batman fan’s favourite villain, I must confess a little bit of fanboy-wee came out. Such is my respect for Phoenix. I can’t think of bad film he’s been in. If you beg to differ please the use the comments section below.
So off I toddle, my e-ticket in hand, to my local cinema, with Biggles and Henko, and nestle comfortably in the best seat in the house (Row J centre seat). Henko commits a cardinal sin of producing a big bag of popcorn, but is forgiven because he has mastered the art of eating the stuff quietly. It’s quite impressive really. It’s a shame that some of the other people in the busy cinema weren’t following suit.
Two hours later, the lights come up and we all agree we ‘need time to process’ what we’ve just seen – essentially the story of a vulnerable man with serious mental health issues encountering a series of unfortunate events transforming into the psychopath we all know (and love?). The moral? This is what happens when people are neglected and decide they don’t need their meds anymore.
I’ll try to avoid any spoilers below, but obviously recommend you watch the movie, avoid reading any more until then and form your own opinion as to whether this film deserves the accolades it is getting. For me it wasn’t, as the movie poster would have you believe, the ‘film of the year’ and I felt it was trying too hard to be ‘a masterpiece’. Sure it had its good points but there were some flaws along the way too, and anyone who has seen Taxi Driver is going to be hopping up and down waving their finger in the air.
I was happy with how the movie treated the connection to the Batman mythos – a light touch although for part of the film they had you thinking there was a massive connection between the Wayne’s and Joker’s stories. I wasn’t bothered about the supposed foray into sacrilegious DC territory in providing the villain’s back story which the character famously said he would prefer to be ‘multiple choice’.
Biggles is angry about the use of a Gary Glitter track, for which the paedophile convict will probably earn royalties, and calls the film ‘dangerous’. There’s a lot of films out there that might cause people to go nuts, fewer that might incite violent riots. This is no more or less violent or inciteful than the rest. Cartoon violence this is not, but I’m not particularly bothered by that. My main takeaway is rather more mundane.
I’m sorry to bang on about this in my posts, but for me once again it was a question of pacing. Simply put the film did drag out. Unlike Avengers: Endgame‘s three hours whipping along at a heady pace, you feel the full two hours of Joker like a child on a motorway car journey to see a far flung relation. Rather than crying for an encore I was left emotionally battered and thinking ‘that was quite enough, thank you…’.
A more stringent edit might have shaved a good twenty minutes from the movie without losing any of the storytelling. Since the bulk of the engaging action happens in Act 3 (as you’d expect) co-writer director Todd Phillips (more accustomed to directing shorter funnier films) might have shaved out some of the slo-mo, the moping around, the moody shots of Gotham City, and the general crazy-person posturing from the first hour. I’ve heard stories of some people actually leaving after half an hour or so. Since the violence doesn’t happen until later that surely must be down to the ponderous storytelling which jars with a generation used to instant gratification.
If you are a more mature member of the audience, who knew not to expect a Disney superhero film and has been brought up watching TV in weekly episodes rather than back-to-back Netflix binges, then you probably stand a better chance of enjoying this film.
The tension builds and builds, helped along by the increasingly annoying dramatic instrumental elements of the soundtrack. It’s almost as irritating as the Joker’s Tourettes-like laughing affliction which for me had just the right elements of creepiness, humour and lack of control – something Phoenix probably spent months perfecting while he was wasting away for the role.
He looks like a walking skeleton in this film and it’s in marked contrast to his bulked out appearance in You Were Never Really Here which to my mind carries some similarities in its style and story. As he encounters injustice after injustice the question everyone watching is asking themselves is ‘when is he going to crack?’
Not soon enough IMO. Like Star Wars Episode III everything seems a little rushed for what you think is the climax only to then slow right down again at the end as Joker pads through the corridor of Arkham hospital for the utterly bewildered leaving bloody footprints on the linoleum. Dr Harleen Quinzel isn’t there to sooth his tortured soul and so he ‘tells’ the other doctor a joke she won’t get.
A misunderstood punchline, kind of sums up my ambivalent feelings toward the film. On the one hand I appreciated Pheonix’s commitment to the role and his interesting empathy-inducing portrayal, but on the flip side the plot seemed rather predictable and linear – a bit like Titanic without the water – and too slow in the first half.
Something worth noting I think, from the showing I attended was that the film got one big laugh. This was directly after an extreme moment of violence when a potential second victim is told he can leave the scene of the crime (an apartment) unharmed but when he tries he is unable to reach the lock on the door (he’s a little person). Now some might say the laughter was in bad taste, but I think it’s excusable as Phillips obviously wanted to provide the audience with a quick change of emotion after seeing such brutality.
“The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t…”
Photo by Yong Chuan on Unsplash