Joker Review: The Masterpiece That Never Was

With the absence of everyone’s favourite caped crusader, will the clown prince of crime take full advantage of his time in the spotlight? In this spoiler free review, this question will be explored in full.  

** 

To kick off proceedings, I would like to take this moment to be utterly, and unapologetically frank with you. Joker is the first film in years to tug me so hard in multiple directions that it almost splits me clean in half.  

On the one hand, I can see with vivid clarity where the seeds have been sewn for a modern masterpiece to grow. On the other, these seeds are not given the proper, nurturing care that they need to blossom into something Keanu Reeves levels of breathtaking.  

It is true that the cinematography is a thing of beauty, the score is undeniably atmospheric and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance will proudly grace the halls of cinematic history. However, the film’s painfully slow burn of a first half and lack of distinct style let it down severely.  

Therefore, in the name of fairness, allow me to take a moment to demonstrate this film’s merits in full, while explaining how it falls short of greatness.  

Occasionally, Joker can get sidetracked in the name of “art”.

VISUAL GAGS

Without a doubt, Joker is one of the more visually arresting films of the year. It is apparent that love and care has gone into each well-crafted and immaculately composed shot. While the grade relies too heavily on tints, each colour pops with a vibrant glow.  

Unfortunately, the colour grade is far from the sole source of visual unoriginality in this film. While the gritty visual texture and over reliance on chiaroscuro lighting – even during exterior day scenes – continues to prove a winning formula, my eyes became acclimatised to it long ago.  

It sounds strange to say, but Joker’s a looker.

AN OFFBEAT ATMOSPHERE

In refreshing contrast to many modern film scores that attempt to unnerve audiences, Joker elects to implement a steadier pace with its music, densely populated with eerie, discordant strings. Combining this with excellent examples of shown-hidden often creates a genuinely suspenseful atmosphere.  

Again, though, Joker reveals its greatest weaknesses in its strengths. For example, it is too liberal with its use of string instruments and pitch escalation. This technique can be found in most modern horror films, meaning Joker is as quick to conform to generic convention as it is to subvert them.  

You can only ever see what you’re allowed to see.

ART DIRECTION THAT TAKES YOU BACK

1981 is the setting for this film. Thankfully, this is clear through the purely cinematic elements of this film alone. Relentless attention to detail has gone into the costumes and locations, establishing a world that feels so real you can practically feel yourself growing an immaculate mullet.  

Alas, this fails to sufficiently differentiate Joker from similar crime films. In Marvel films (someone had to mention them), you can see the comic book panels spill out on to the silver screen. Conversely, Joker’s realistic design too easily allows my mind to wander to the films that inspire it.  

When you finally get to see it, Joker’s costume is fantastic.

THE BUILD UP

Interestingly, Joker dedicates the entirety of its first half to developing its titular character. It delves deep into every disturbing facet of his psyche to the point where you feel you could slip into his oversized clown shoes. All the while, completely forgetting his penchant for merciless murder.  

Now, were we dealing with an original character, this would be a highly engaging and refreshing cinematic experience. However, we are dealing with the Joker, and your desire to see his more defined characteristics will soon outweigh your intrigue surrounding his subjective point of view.  

On that note, the Joker’s most intriguing quality is his lack of a clear origin story. Therefore, an argument can be made against this film’s very existence. After all, is explaining what has remained satisfyingly unexplained for so long not missing the point? It is an issue worthy of discussion.  

Were it not for Joaquin Phoenix, the first half would try your patience.

THE PAY OFF

In contrast, the film’s second half perfectly, and proudly, displays all the potential that was present in micro form during the first half. The stakes rise exponentially, the drama escalates at a rapid, yet easily digestible pace and we are finally brought face-to-face with the Joker we all know and love to hate.  

Unfortunately, it does not succeed in justifying the elongated, prior half that lacked subtlety in its message of societal-neglect towards those suffering with ill mental health. This is due, in no small part, to Joker’s unspecified illnesses and caricature-like authority figures. 

Joker somehow starts a revolution by doing very little.

THE ONE AND ONLY JOKER

No matter what your stance on Joker may be: whether you deem it a masterpiece; or if it disappointed you, everyone agrees Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is seminal… myself included. He lends a unique blend of quiet unease and relatability to the role you simply cannot look away from.  

Of course, it is not difficult to be the stand out character in a film where you are the only character. To eradicate any confusion, there are multiple characters in this film, but they lack individual motivation and, instead, only serve to further Joker’s development. In fact, their very names escape me.  

A career best from Joaquin Phoenix.

CONSENSUS AND FINAL VERDICT

Joker is an all too perfect example of missed potential as director Todd Phillips (of Hangover fame no less) puts across a socially-charged message of neglect with a heavy, rather than a deft, hand. 

Bearing this mind, how urgent should you make your viewing of what should have been Todd Phillips magnum opus? Immediate, in disc form, when it makes a guest appearance on the box or never. 

VERDICT: IMMEDIATE 

Now, this may come as a mild shock due to my relatively negative review of this film. However, while I found little to enjoy due to the film’s identity, subtlety and urgency deficit — the latter true mostly of the initial half — it is a viewing experience you must attain a first-hand account of.  

My word is by no means law, and I know plenty of people who are yet to cease their songs of praise for this film. So, if the idea of eye-catching visuals, creepy music and a second half to die for sounds perfectly fine to you, then book yourself a ticket.  

Are you looking forward to seeing Joker? Have you already seen Joker? Let’s get talking. You can catch me on Twitter @WillDoubleJ.

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