I saw Joker last night. It is a very good movie, but falls just short of being an incredible one. Joaquin Phoenix carries the film as you might expect, and he deserves some legitimate Oscar consideration. The comparisons to Ledger's Joker are inevitable, so let's get that out of the way. I still think Ledger's performance is one for the ages and a little "better" overall, but this portrayal is quite good in its own right. This movie and this Joker very much feels like its own thing, which is the route it needed to go. Frankly, this film barely felt related to a comic at all, apart from some characters featured here and there that you'd expect. I really appreciated that it didn't lean hardly at all on fanservice/nostalgia or try to tie into other shit or set up several other movies. That was refreshing.
Phoenix is suitably tortured and creepy in this, and given that he's a fairly odd guy already, it really works. I was concerned about how the film would depict mental illness, and thankfully it mostly succeeds there and touches on how society in general still has a ways to go in terms of their response to it. You empathize with his struggle and can understand why he eventually reaches his breaking point. You don't really "root for him" per se, but you get where he's coming from. The film is largely a character study, and a damn good one at that. Joaquin Phoenix provides some of the best facial acting I've ever seen in anything, with his character being visibly strained throughout the movie.
I've seen a bunch of talk of how this movie will either supposedly inspire psychopaths or is some 1:1 relevant social commentary on (insert real-world issue), and that's all a bit of a stretch. The Joker in this movie isn't really painted in a purely positive light, nor is the world around him all that believable in terms of literally everything being awful. This is honestly the movie's weakest part, as virtually everyone in Joker's world is pretty over-the-top terrible to him. It serves to establish his motivations, but none of it is remotely subtle and it all feels very much like a plot device. Moreover, the class warfare portion of the narrative isn't executed all that well and feels a little forced.
The movie is filmed beautifully. As much talk will surely and deservedly be given to how Oscar-worthy Phoenix's performance is, it will be an even bigger crime if the cinematography here doesn't get serious consideration for awards. Everything is appropriately bleak, and there are multiple memorable shots/scenes. I'll get a little deeper into those in the spoiler section, but the visual style and framing really adds to the movie. Honestly, that better succeeded at establishing the world than much of the narrative did, at least for me. The cinematography picks up some of the slack there and damn well may have saved the movie.
It's a film well-worth seeing. Please also note here that it's not one to take the kids to. At all. It's also tangential at best to the comic universe, so if that's what you're looking for, you'll be wildly disappointed. However, It's engaging throughout, and Phoenix's performance and the cinematography are certainly worth the price of admission alone. The narrative itself is a little weak and often doesn't entirely earn what it's pushing, but it's mostly fine and not worthy of as much hand-wringing or lauding as has already been devoted to it. Ultimately, the film is a solid and often arresting watch.
There were a few twists I rather enjoyed. The whole "Thomas Wayne is Joker's dad" storyline initially felt like a quasi-interesting take on the characters, and half of me wishes they'd stuck with it just to watch the comic book crowd flip their shit over it, but it was arguably more interesting and fitting to have even Joker's beloved mom be revealed to be every bit as dishonest and awful as all the rest of the people in his life. Also, the side story with his seemingly successful comedic debut and his romance with his neighbor turning out to be simply a delusion in his head was quite good.
I will say that I rolled my eyes at the "KILL THE RICH" newspaper headline that was featured several times in the film for dramatic effect. Nolan's Batman Begins did a much better job of actually establishing the socioeconomic divide between Bruce Wayne's ritzy world and The Narrows, whereas this movie relied far too heavily on mere juxtaposition and/or far-too-literal instances of beating the audience over the head with it like the aforementioned headline. Moreover, the irony of this being a thematic element of a film made by and featuring exceedingly wealthy people does not escape me, so it fell pretty flat and felt more like cheap pandering to some current attitudes in the real world, which is all just kinda whatever to me. Moving on.
About halfway through the movie, I was kind of wondering about all the talk of how dark the movie was, thinking it really wasn't that violent or disturbing, and right about then his clown buddies came over and OH JESUS CHRIST. It has gotten to be a somewhat hacky indie thing to have abrupt hyperviolence (looking at you, Refn), but this one actually was fairly effective. I think it worked because one of the only nice people in the entire film had to witness the horror up close and served as the audience surrogate to the Joker fully embracing his new comfort with killing. Also, the poor guy's inability to reach the chain lock was fucking brutal to the point of being physically painful for me to watch until Joker actually did allow him to leave.
There were three standout scenes in particular for me. One of them should be obvious to any Dark Knight fans with a fun nod to Ledger's Joker as Phoenix's Joker gleefully beheld the chaos from the window of a cop car. Also, when Phoenix leaves the train car after escaping the grasp of the police via the mob of Jokers rising up, the shot of him leaving the subway while the cops run past him towards the scene of the crime was fantastic. And finally, the scene with Joker being propped up on the cop car as a "hero", replete with him painting a smile on his own face in blood and dancing was also done extremely well. I almost think the movie should have ended there because the spectacle there was excellent, although I did enjoy the final scene's line about how the shrink wouldn't get it. That nicely wrapped a bow on the mindset of the Joker and the film itself. Good stuff.