Joker (4K UHD Review)
Release Date(s)2019 (January 7, 2020)
Studio(s)Warner Bros. Pictures/DC/Village Roadshow (Warner Bros.)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: D
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a simple but deeply disturbed man who’s fallen through the cracks in the sickly society of Gotham City circa 1981. Forced to care for his ailing mother (Frances Conroy), Arthur eeks out a meager living as a rent-a-clown and stand-up comic. All he really wants to do is make people smile and laugh, but Gotham delights in chewing up and devouring its weakest denizens… and Arthur is no exception. His mother holds out hope that mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), for whom she once worked, will save them from their life of despair. And when local TV host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) invites Arthur to be a guest on his talk-show, things seem to be looking up. But continued bad luck and disturbing personal revelations send Arthur into an inevitable tailspin from which both he… and Gotham City… may never fully recover.
So… what to say about Joker? Here’s the interesting thing: My wife, Sarah, has zero interest in genre films, fantasy, or superheroes. Yet she really wanted to see this film. And when she did, she really enjoyed it. We both did, in fact. But it occurred to me afterwards that the reason she enjoyed Joker is that it’s not actually a superhero film. Nor is it a super-villain film, or even really much of a comic book film. If you stripped away its DC trappings—set the film in New York City instead of Gotham, substituted Ed Koch for Thomas Wayne—you’d have essentially the same film. And if you set that film in the present day (keeping in mind that so-called ‘deaths of despair’ are at an all time high in America), you’d have a scathing and disturbingly relevant commentary on modern society. But among the scant extras on this disc, there’s a clip of director Todd Philips saying this: “I just love bad guys. It’s fun to say, why is he like that? What made him like that? And that’s ultimately really what the goal of the movie [is]—it’s not this gigantic statement on the world today. There is stuff thematically in there, but really it’s like—what makes somebody that way?” Now… I give Philips full credit for both his honesty and his talent behind the camera, which is on full display in Joker. But his admission illuminates both the film’s strength and its weakness too.
Here’s the thing: Todd Philips’ Joker is a very good movie. But it’s also frustrating. It’s a brilliant character study, and an impressive exercise in cinematic style. Joaquin Phoenix gives a bravura performance that not only puts Jared Leto’s Joker (from the utterly terrible Suicide Squad) to shame, it may well (and deservingly so) win him the Oscar for Best Actor. For my money, Joker is also the most interesting DC film in a long while. But it’s a one-shot, completely unconnected to anything else in Warner’s cinematic universe. And to call this film any kind of a masterpiece seems hyperbolic in the extreme when its maker professes little interest in saying anything with his work. Great art illuminates the human condition. Philips just likes bad guys. So for me, Joker feels like a hollow exercise—an accidentally relevant film (but one that’s more curiosity than essential) and an accidentally good DC film (that contributes absolutely nothing to the larger mythos). Anyway, your own mileage will vary.
Joker was captured digitally in the ARRIRAW codec (at 6.5K) using Arri Alexa 65, LF, and Mini cameras with Hasselbad Prime DNA lenses. It was finished as a native 4K Digital Intermediate at the 1.85:1 “Academy Flat” aspect ratio (though brief program footage within the film appears in 1.33 and 1.55). For its Ultra HD release, the film has been graded for High Dynamic Range (both Dolby Vision and HDR10 options are available). The result is nothing less than spectacular. This is a magnificent 4K image—even with the film’s abundant use of practical atmospheric effects (smoke, fog, steam, rain), tightly-refined and natural detail abounds. During the film’s opening, there’s an establishing shot of a dingy Gotham street where you can practically see every brick in the facade of each building on the block. The film starts with a slightly desaturated, almost noir-ish appearance that’s 1984 New York City with just a dash of 1940s art deco. The palette captures the look of 1970s Kodachrome film stock, with stylized but rich and wonderfully subtle hues that shift from scene to scene to evoke emotional tone. The colors grow more vibrant as the film progresses, and as Arthur gains more clarity of purpose. Contrast is lovely, with deep blacks and gloomy bold highlights—the look of a slightly smoggy and overcast day. This is a dazzling 4K image—one of the best visual presentations I’ve seen on Ultra HD since Dunkirk or Blade Runner 2049.
Primary audio on the disc is included in a terrific English Dolby Atmos mix that’s nearly as good as the image. Joker is not an action film in any way; it’s a pretty traditional drama. So you wouldn’t expect a lot of sonic razzle-dazzle. But this mix impresses with its expansiveness and nuance. The soundstage feels surprisingly large and dimensional, with a completely enveloping quality. Subtle atmospherics abound—city sounds, street traffic, subway clatter, conversation, TV chatter and jingles—and they filter in effortlessly from seemingly every direction at once, even above, creating true immersion in the film’s story space. And the mix gets more aggressive as Arthur’s world begins to fall apart, so that by the time it descends into true anarchy, you’re experiencing a thunderous and ominous cacophony of sound. Dialogue clarity is excellent and there’s plenty of firm LFE when needed. The period soundtrack makes good use of existing pop music too, including Cream’s “White Room,” Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2,” and Jimmy Durante’s “Smile.” All of these tracks and more are presented with fine fidelity. Additional audio options include English Descriptive Audio and English, French, and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital. Subtitles are available in English (for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing), French, and Spanish.
Warner’s Ultra HD package includes two discs, offering the film in both 4K and 1080p HD, along with additional bonus content (on the Blu-ray only) as follows:
- Becoming Joker (1:25)
- Joker: Vision & Fury (22:25)
- Please Welcome… Joker! (2:44)
- Joker: A Chronicle of Chaos (3:04)
Mostly, they’re little tone and mood pieces. Becoming Joker is brief look at Phoenix’s transformation into the title character. Please Welcome… Joker! is a look at multiple takes of Phoenix in character arriving on “The Murray Franklin Show” set after being introduced, each offering a very different performance vibe by the actor. Joker: A Chronicle of Chaos is just a video gallery of images from the film. The most meaty piece (and it’s barely that) is Vision & Fury, which features Philips and producer Bradley Cooper talking about the idea for the film, their approach to the production, the overall production design, etc. But there’s little from Phoenix, who apparently doesn’t like to be interviewed or talk about his own work. Suffice it to day that the bonus content will definitely leave fans of the film wanting. You also get a Movies Anywhere Digital code on a paper insert.
However you ultimately end up feeling about the film, I can say this much with perfect confidence: Joker is well made, fascinating, and absolutely worth seeing… especially on 4K Ultra HD. Its scant bonus content aside, I’m happy to recommend both the film and the A/V presentation here to anyone who might be interested.
- Bill Hunt
(You can follow Bill on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)