The character of Joker is one of the most iconic and most often adapted villains in comic book history. From the campy performance of Cesar Romero in the 60s television series to Jared Leto’s culturally rejected take in Suicide Squad, there have been a wide range of interpretations on the character that have satisfied to varying degrees. When it was announced that Joker was going to be a standalone Batman-less origin story from the guy who brought us The Hangover trilogy, there were more than a few concerns from certain factions of fans. The biggest point in favor of this version of the story was the casting of one of our greatest living actors, Joaquin Phoenix, in the titular role. The lead-up to the film was filled with hyped-up controversy and fear mongering from the media, which ultimately served as unnecessary noise for a film that was an adult psychological drama served up in comic book trappings. With over a billion dollars grossed and eleven Academy Award nominations, it is safe to say that the initial doubts about the viability of this film have been quashed.
Before there was Joker, there was Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally fragile party clown and aspiring comedian living in early 1980s Gotham. The city is steadily deteriorating into a hotbed of crime and poverty as the tension between the wealthy and the poor grows every day. Arthur has a condition where he laughs at inappropriate times, and he relies on assistance from social services to get his medicine. Arthur lives with his frail, elderly mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), who loves to regale him with stories of working for the Wayne family when they are not watching their favorite late night host, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur has big dreams of being a guest on his show and solidifying the bond he feels from watching him on television. Following a brutal attack at his work followed up by an announcement that he will no longer have access to social services, Arthur begins to crack up little by little. Arthur is trying to keep it together, but society keeps pushing him to his limits.
Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely phenomenal in this role. His gaunt frame and subtle movements spellbind you from beginning to end. You feel such compassion for him as he is slowly poisoned by external factors, paving his way to the Clown Prince of Crime. All he needs is a little assistance and kindness to keep him from spiraling, but, as is often the case in real life, the world of Gotham is not in a place to help. The script is very bleak and depressing, but never flinches in its depiction of mental illness. The Gotham depicted in Joker provides the perfect, grimy background that complements the idea that if a city is unwell, the citizens are unwell. Todd Phillips may mostly be known for directing a lot of dumb comedies, but you cannot argue that he has a strong visual eye with this film. There are some artfully composed sequences that give the movie a depth that a great number of comic book films fail to deliver.
The film is built upon the shoulders of many great films that came before it, but that can be said about nearly every modern film and does not take away from the masterful execution. The movie is crafted into a tightly packed narrative that does not have any extraneous moments that bog down the momentum. The cast outside Phoenix is doing incredible work, as well, from De Niro’s reserved talk show host to Zazie Beetz as Sophie, Arthur’s neighbor with whom he forms a connection. The script builds towards a violent finale that never glorifies its actions. This is a tragic tale that warns of what could happen when we do not take care of our most vulnerable. There have been calls for a sequel or for this Joker to be inserted into future Batman films. This is reasonable since Phoenix executed an iconic performance, but what we should be clamoring for is for Hollywood to take more risks in creative storytelling. There is more than one thing that a comic book movie can be, and audiences deserve to see strong creative choices in every version.
Joker arrives on Blu-Ray in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with a striking 1080p transfer. The level of detail that is provided is truly something to behold, and it stands among the best of the format. There is a fine amount of texture and depth that the movie offers, which almost makes you feel like you are watching a movie shot on film. CGI is blended beautifully with the real world settings, and the muted color palette sets up the bleak world that this character inhabits. There are strong bursts of color throughout such as costumes and Joker’s iconic face paint. Black levels are handled quite well and show no evidence of black crush or banding. The 4K UHD that is also on the market likely improves on this in many respects, but those who are sticking with Blu-Ray are still sure to be blown away by this fantastic presentation.
The movie comes to Blu-Ray with a knockout Dolby Atmos track that brings the movie to life beautifully. One of the best technical things about Joker is the Oscar-winning score from Hildur Guðnadóttir that permeates the movie in such a haunting way. The track allows the score to envelope you, which draws you deeper into the Joker’s madness. Dialogue is balanced perfectly with the sound effects and score, and directionality is never an issue with any of the sounds. Since this is more of a psychological drama than any type of action movie, there is not a ton of extreme activity in the low end, but there is a steady use that gives the movie extra character. There are nice, subtle city sounds that make you feel like you are right in the middle of Gotham alongside Arthur. The track is very impressive and supports the movie in all of the right ways.
- Becoming Joker: A minute long look at Joaquin becoming Joker set to music from the film. This is not very substantial at all.
- Joker – Vision & Fury: A twenty three-minute overview of the making of the film with director Todd Phillips, Joaquin Phoenix, producer Bradley Cooper and more. This is a great look into why they decided to tackle this story and how they were able to pull of their vision of Gotham, among many other aspects of the movie. Joaquin is smoking through his entire interview and gives good insight into what his headspace was for the character.
- Please Welcome…Joker!: A nearly three-minute expansion of the idea presented in the previous feature where Joaquin changed his performance from take to take to match the character’s unpredictable nature. Multiple moments from different takes are presented here, and it really makes for a fascinating watch.
- Joker – A Chronicle of Chaos: A three-minute series of images from both the movie and on-set that track the progression of the plot. Not really something you would care to see more than once.
Joker is a polarizing movie in the film community, but it so expertly acted and crafted in nearly every single way that it is hard to fathom why it inspires such hatred from certain groups. It is fair to say it rips off certain elements from Scorsese movies, but it shapes it enough into its own experience that I cannot help but love it. The film is a psychological drama draped in a comic book exterior, which is the kind of experimentation I want to see more of from my comic book movies. Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has given this film a 5-star A/V presentation and at least a couple engaging extras. This is a must-own for any film collection. Highly Recommended
Joker is currently available to purchase on 4K UHD, Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.