“Joker,” showcased in crisp and dynamic 70mm film at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, is a hyper-realistic origin story of the notorious comic anarchist. The film’s release has sparked debate over the relationship between violence in film and real-world domestic terrorism.   

Whenever a movie provokes a dialogue that reflects our social climate, it’s doing something right. Joker is meant to be divisive, and in a sense, that is precisely how true art is defined – the ability to draw varying perspectives. Star Joaquin Phoenix said it best himself: “the filmmaker is not responsible for teaching the audience moral lessons.” As far as on-screen violence goes, there is a vast difference between depiction and endorsement. While “Joker” is hyper-realistically rendered, it’s also explored through the eyes of an unreliable narrator. A narrator with a skewed interpretation of his environment.

As an audience, can we look at a film objectively, without extending our own personal agendas onto it? Many will leave their screening of “Joker” feeling utterly shocked and begrimed. If you evaluate the quality of a film on emotional satisfaction, then “Joker” is not for you. However, for those who say they didn’t “like the way the movie made them feel,” I ask.. “isn’t that a compliment”? Movies like “Trainspotting” haven’t become classics because they were life-affirming, but because they prompted a visceral response. Movies should be held to a standard based on how much they can make the audience feel, not necessarily the specific emotion they may elicit. However, you may have walked out feeling like, can you be impartial enough to appreciate the craft? This is a starkly textured film with an old-fashioned aesthetic that adds a whole new dimension to the experience.

Yes, it is violent – and not in a cartoon-fantasy Tarantino way. The violence is hard-hitting, as it’s meant to be. Its craft is thoroughly inspired, with cinematography that anoints the visual canvas with the bleak grain of a New York gutter. The musical score is enunciated with wistful and scathing sadness to match the grimy atmosphere and cynical thematic template. The architecture of “Joker” can not go unnoticed. “Joker” forgivably skids, as it is ultimately overtly predicated on poster-modernist character studies of old. In fact, there is even a direct reference to Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” that feels almost as on the nose as casting Robert De Niro in a role that parallels his work in “King of Comedy.” This format isn’t exactly a defect, seeing that this composition gels smoothly with the character of Arthur Fleck – it just feels moderately derivative. What makes this film stand apart from the pact is an astonishingly committed performance from star Joaquin Phoenix.

Phoenix has gained a reputation as one of the finest actors of his generation. Along with that, he is also infamous for being a public prankster. His mockumentary “I’m Still Here,” where he tricked the media and the public into thinking he was having a mental breakdown, was very telling to his potential to play the Clown Prince of Crime. While the late Heath Ledger immortalized the role, engraining his cheek to cheek razor blade scars into the pop-culture zeitgeist, Phoenix has reinterpreted the role in a wholly unique way. He gives a towering, nuanced performance, one that exudes a varying range of scathing emotions that give his cavernous character depth. Even his shortest mannerisms are clearly marked in a duality of insanity and total despair. We are not meant to cosign his behaviors but sympathize with the tragedy that is his life. Tragedy is a primary theme of the film. This is highlighted in its juxtaposition to comedy. This version of the Joker has multiple renditions of the iconic laughter. One version is an illness-induced outburst of inappropriate hysterics that mirrors his inner turmoil. The next is a fabricated cackle that he integrates for social appropriation. The last is an authentic chuckle that illustrates his utter defiance to popular opinion.

Joker says that “comedy is subjective, the system decides what is right and what is wrong, just like it decides what is funny.” This seems to be the foundation of this film.  Director Todd Phillips has recently made comments about “comedy being dead due to woke culture,” a perspective that is thoroughly embedded in the film’s roots. Joker’s final sermon reflects on the insidious nature of modern society. Where the media reigns supreme, and everyone’s sensitivity seems only to amplify the problems they try to resolve. We are propelled to believe that we as a society bread these sociopathic anarchists with our intolerance to non-conformity. “Joker” is an absolute wake up call to the American masses. The fact is, comedy is subjective, as is any art form. “Joker” exemplifies an ambiguity as enigmatic as its unreliable narrator. The answers we walk away with from the film will vary from person to person, as will their opinions. However, that seems to be the point. Movies like this aren’t made to adhere to popular belief or “politically correct” qualifications. This is an intrepid entry to the superhero canon that transcends the genre and dares to elicit the type of contemplative conjecture found only in the most daring cinematic efforts of the past decade.

My Score: 9.7/10

By Sam Clark