Release Date(s)2019 (January 7, 2020)
Studio(s)DC Films/Village Roadshow Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures (Warner Home Video)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B-
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is an unhappy soul, beaten down by life. An aspiring stand-up comic, he lives with his disabled mother (Frances Conroy) and supports them both on his meager earnings as a professional clown. They live in a run-down apartment in Gotham City that suggests New York City in 1981, when the city was not at its best. Wealth is concentrated among the few, there are public demonstrations, crime is on the rise, and social programs like the one keeping Arthur in therapy and under medication are being cut. A garbage strike has resulted in ubiquitous piles of trash, rats roam freely, and subway cars and walls are covered with graffiti.
Though it’s a fictional film, Joker draws upon real-world incidents and events that have shaped social policy. The world portrayed is therefore not entirely foreign.
Arthur is afflicted with a medical condition that causes him to break out in a disturbing, cackling laugh. This, in turn, has made him the butt of cruelty. He finds a bit of relief in an uncaring world with neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz), but what he envisions as a relationship never flourishes. Further compounding his difficulties, Arthur later discovers some documents that disprove what he was told about his childhood.
Attacked in a subway car by three drunken Wall Street types, Arthur violently fights back and discovers a sense of power he’s never felt before. With a new swagger, he confronts two men he feels wronged him and his family—his Mom’s former boss, politician Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), and his comedy idol, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), who aired on his talk show a film clip of Arthur’s abortive attempts at stand-up in a comedy club, making him a national laughingstock.
Joker is likely the most atypical comic book film ever made, since there’s no superhero here. Essentially an origin story, the film is a dark journey into deprivation, unrealistic aspirations, social cruelty, and pent-up anger. Despite Arthur’s eventual turn to violence, Phoenix elicits sympathy for the character. Arthur is a tortured soul—one of life’s invisible people, marginalized by being different and unable to distinguish between realistic and impossible goals. He is reminiscent of mentally unbalanced stand-up wannabe Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, only more twisted and far more demonic. Joker also resembles Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver in his penchant for violence.
As we learn Arthur’s story, we come to understand—if not condone—his choices. A skeletal Phoenix, ribs and spine prominent with a concave abdomen, writhes and dances to music within his own head as his Arthur embraces a new freedom. Unchained from society’s rules, he is a manchild wreaking havoc in the city that provides his personal playground.
Director Todd Phillips (the Hangover trilogy) has fashioned an intriguing character study. Far darker than typical films based on comic book characters, it hovers on the edge of horror while methodically showing the gradual transformation of downcast, lonely Arthur Fleck into the powerful Joker. The violence in this appropriately R-rated film serves the narrative instead of feeling gratuitous. Arthur lives in a violent world and turns to violence to avenge a lifetime of injustice.
Joker will appeal to viewers who are not particularly fond of superhero films, since the script by Phillips and Scott Silver—with acknowledgement to Batman creator Bob Kane—is really about how society marginalizes certain individuals, how abuse creates emotional scars, and how discovering hurtful truths can cause a person to snap. Captivating throughout, this psychological thriller deserves a Best Actor nomination for Joaquin Phoenix.
The Blu-ray release, featuring 1080p High Definition resolution, is presented in the widescreen format of 1.85:1. The film’s production design is based on New York City in the 1980s. The look is depressing. Piles of garbage line the streets, graffiti is everywhere, and street violence is an everyday fear. This is a city that has given up. It feels oppressive and dehumanizing, and no-one feels this more than Arthur Fleck. Locations include dark alleyways, poorly illuminated streets at night, and Arthur’s dimly lit apartment which suggests that Arthur lives in a permanent world of shadow. The Joker make-up is rough and haphazard, as if it were smeared on rather than finessed by a professional make-up artist. The red lip make-up extends beyond the mouth line, giving it a creepy look. Joker’s costume of muted red suit, orange vest, and green shirt, as well as his green hair, complete his unsettling appearance.
The soundtrack is English Dolby Atmos True High Definition. Optional Spanish, Portuguese, and French tracks are available in 5.1 Dolby Digital, as are subtitles in Spanish, French, and English (for the hearing impaired). The dominant sound is Joker’s crazed, frighteningly inappropriate laugh. When Arthur transitions to Joker, the laugh takes on greater menace. Gotham is given a threatening aura. Arthur’s apartment is filled with sounds of people shouting from the alley, noise from neighbors in the hallway, the rumbling engines of the period cars, police sirens, and horns honking. Rioters scream, smash windows, and run through the streets, causing mayhem. A gun that goes off accidentally in Arthur’s apartment sounds like a cannon because of the reverberation. The incessant din contributes to Arthur’s descent into madness. Hildur Gudnadottir’s atmospheric score enhances the gloom and despair of a disheartened city.
Bonus materials on the 2-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack include 3 behind-the-scenes making-of featurettes, and a still gallery. A Digital code on a paper insert is included within the package.
Becoming Joker – Joaquin Phoenix is shown in wardrobe and make-up tests. He stands impassively, sometimes smoking a cigarette, and adopts a slinky dance movement when in full Joker costume. Various stages of make-up are superimposed on his face, providing an instant Jekyll-Hyde transformation.
Joker Vision & Fury – Todd Phillips discusses Joker’s genesis and “what makes someone that way.” It took him a year to write the script, and he always had Phoenix in mind during the writing stage. DC Comics imposed no restrictions on Phillips. The script departed from many comic book tropes. A new character was created and given a name, humanizing a two-dimensional character. The film deals with how the Joker evolved and explains his maniacal laugh. The film is set in the past—an unspecified alternate universe—to remove it from any specific location, though the inspiration was New York City in 1981. Production designer Mark Friedberg notes that the city in the early 80s was dirty, with municipal strikes and corruption rampant. The real New York City was blended with the film’s Gotham City. Location shoots were done in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Newark, New Jersey, to bring Gotham to cinematic life, with CGI strategically used to make the locations better resemble the fictional Gotham. Phillips had conversations with Joaquin Phoenix for months before he agreed to do the film. Phoenix lost over 50 pounds to get down to 125 pounds by starving himself, eating only a single apple a day. Phoenix altered his performance for each take, offering editors a wide selection but making editing more difficult. The film works because Phoenix creates tension throughout. You never know what Joker will do.
Please Welcome… Joker – Phoenix’s unpredictability is shown in several takes in which Joker makes his entrance on Murray Franklin’s talk show. Each take is different. In successive takes, he peeks from behind the curtain, he sashays out, trips over a step, enters from behind a potted plant on the set, kisses a fellow guest, and twirls himself in the curtain after being introduced.
Joker: A Chronicle of Chaos – This extensive photo gallery illustrates scenes from the film.
– Dennis Seuling