Joker has been making headline after headline after surpassing 1 billion dollars at the box office this past week, so it only makes sense to share the ReelDecisions movie review while it is still top of mind. Joker has done something that has never been done before; it became the first R-rated movie to cross the billion-dollar mark – all without being released in China. It’s a jaw-dropping achievement, especially for a movie based on a comic book character that is not part of a series (and made with a modest budget). Billion-dollar movies are usually made with huge budgets, not something as little as $55M-70M. But as Joker shows, a well-crafted film mixed with controversy and a character virtually everyone is curious about makes a perfect combination to drive people to the theatre.
Joker’s feat is both surprising and telling. It means there is a huge market for well-crafted, dark films that deal with topical (and polarizing) themes – namely, mental illness and the struggle between rich and poor. Its unparalleled success also may have had something to do with the fact that it was an origin-story for one of the most notorious villains in the DC universe. And not just any origin story either, a gritty and violent one with, arguably, one of the most talented actors at the center of it – Joaquin Phoenix.
Despite the rawness in which it deals with its contents, and the remarkable performance by Joaquin Phoenix, it’s still a tough film to recommend to anyone. At the same time, there are people who have seen this movie 7-10 times in the theatre. But it must be said, Joker will only appeal to a “certain” type of moviegoer, and it is certainly not something that will be universally enjoyed by all. It is not your typical run-of-the-mill comic book movie. It’s not funny, it’s not action-packed, there is virtually no hard-core CG imagery, and the focus is more on believability rather than outrageous otherworldly powers. In other words, it’s more of the “cinema” that Martin Scorsese was talking about rather than more Marvel drivel.
Joker is the origin story for Batman’s arch nemesis, a tale that has never been shown before on the big screen, and one that audiences have been waiting for. Sure, The Joker has been portrayed by a number of Oscar-winning actors on screen (Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto), but how The Joker came to be and the troubles he faced in order to morph into one of the best-known villains of all time has never been done. We got a glimpse of how good a Joker arc could be with The Dark Knight (hell, Heath Ledger won an Oscar for it!), but Todd Phillips takes it to another level entirely. He should probably send a big ‘Thank You’ note to Christopher Nolan for successfully priming the market for dark origin storytelling though. At least people had an idea of what to expect with this one.
Joker tells the story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a troubled individual who really got the short end of the stick in life. He has a terrible job, is constantly mistreated by others, has fits of uncontrollable laughter in the worst possible situations, and has ultimately been left behind by the system. Things slowly unravel after finding himself in a number of unfortunate circumstances – including brutal, unprovoked beatings; finding out new truths about his loved ones; being forced to stop medications; and generally feeling rejected and irrelevant. The whole thing is a slow burn and mostly a gritty, dark character study. If that doesn’t appeal to you right off the bat, or if seeing Joaquin at his absolute best isn’t enough to sell it, steer clear.
Even as everything is happening, you feel close to Arthur, you truly understand why he is spiralling out of control and you just wish someone would help him. You can’t really blame him for the criminal things that he does – including murder (hence the controversy before the movie was widely released). From feeling like the scum of the earth to experiencing the feeling of immense power and adrenaline that accompanies his crimes, Arthur slowly transforms into someone else. People were concerned that it glorified gun violence and would inspire it in others, especially in America where everyone is afraid of another movie theatre shooting. Couple all that with corrupt authority figures and depictions of violent protesters reacting to a David (poor) vs. Goliath (rich) type of crime story in Gotham City, you begin to understand why Joker was not even released in China. Yes, there is violence. Yes, there are riots. Yes, the rich get away with terrible things. Is this anything new? Aren’t good movies supposed to get you to draw similarities between real life and fiction?
This whole film is a very unique experience, crafted by Todd Phillips who is better known for his R-rated comedies (The Hangover series, Due Date, and Old School). It’s very edgy, fairly long, gritty, and takes acting to the next level. Calling Joaquin’s performance Oscar-worthy is actually an understatement. Plenty of questionable actors have won Oscars; but this, this is a performance that should be studied in the years to come. He wouldn’t even be the first actor to take home the prize after portraying the Joker (Heath Ledger won posthumously for The Dark Knight).
Just because it has grossed over 1 billion dollars doesn’t mean everyone who saw it liked it, or would even see it again. It is a guarantee that some people even hated it. But those who liked it loved it enough to see it multiple times in theatres, contributing to its huge success. Oscar buzz also helps. But a lot of people will actually find it too dark and too violent to be truly enjoyable. It’s something you should see, but something you might not actually like – if that makes any sense. Just be prepared for something you’ve never seen before and to be challenged mentally (perhaps even emotionally).
If film festivals mean anything to you (admittedly, this moviegoer doesn’t always “understand” the big winners at these events), you’ll be happy to hear that the movie received an 8-minute standing ovation at it’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival this year. Whether it takes home any golden statues this year is up for debate, but there’s no denying you’ll be hearing a lot about it for the next 4 months.
The movie may not be funny (at all), but you can bet that Todd Philips and Warner Bros. are laughing all the way to the bank with this one.
Joker was released on October 4, 2019 and has grossed over 1 billion dollars in less than 6 weeks.
Watch the official trailer here: