Sat. Apr 4th, 2020

Toronto Review: ‘Joker’ is a magnetic, volcanic masterpiece

Courtesy of TIFF

Todd Phillips creates a terrifying masterpiece and one of the best and most daring comic book films ever made

To say that JOKER is one of the best comic book films ever made is no exaggeration nor fanboy theory. In an age where such films are plagued by special effects and spectacle that are as impressive to look at as they are forgettable fluff, JOKER comes to show that comic book-based films can have multiple things to say and will create intense conversation that perhaps no other superhero or comic book film has ever created. Most impressively, the film does not seek to easily please nor impress audiences. It stays true to itself and, in the process, sweeps us along the way and immerses us in its dark, terrifying world.

Not since THE DARK KNIGHT have we seen such a magnetic, transporting, uncompromising and raw film that is daring enough to get rid of artificial effects, contrived plotlines, expensive production to deliver something of incredible timeliness and quite a stirring commentary of the world we live in today. In inspiring multiple interpretations, even the vocal critics of the film will not deny that such conversation is one of the film’s prime merits. Unlike most DC and Marvel stuff, that has turned into what looks like console films where drama is sparse in the middle of dizzying effects and epic battles, the JOKER shocks and stuns its audience without a hint of effects.

As it turns out, the real world, with its stark parallels to the story of the Joker, is much more terrifying than any villain created by some CGI. And it’s indeed quite rare to see such a dense, layered and complex comic book film at a time when studios are going safer and safer. It’s quite a miracle that such a film exists in the first place and its existence alone should be celebrated, even if this does not mean it should, nor will, be unanimously praised in every corner.

A character study rather than a conventional origin story, JOKER is one of those films that surprises, stuns and shocks it audience rather than create instant sentiments of love or passion. It’s a trait of many great films that, as a bit of time has passed by, their narrative boldness and utter uniqueness are realized and fully appreciated. Gritty, dark and psychological, this is not a film made for mere popcorn entertainment but has several things to say.

There are a multitude of ways through which analysis about the film can, and will, be drawn – but perhaps the best way to view JOKER is to interpret it as a journey of longing. In every frame and every scene, Philipps brilliantly builds a character on its path to transformation, stemming from needs and emotions that are so far away that they have become expired dreams; ghosts hunting a troubled man. As Arthur (an astonishing, career-best performance by Joaquin Pheonix) disappears gradually until his true self vanishes only to then rebuild his identity as the Joker, the deconstruction and reconstruction of identity is quite something to behold.

This journey of longing is presented in phases, or chapters, within the context of the story: longing to get away from loneliness, longing to find true belonging, longing for justice, love, laughter – but most importantly longing to be accepted and noticed. Each of these emotions occupy the film with wordless and sparsely-written scenes that speak to the process of creating a deranged, unhinged killer whose mental illness is transformed into insanity as the longing grows more urgent and ultimately leads to despair and a hunger for revenge. That’s not to say that the film presents mental illness in sentimental, sympathetic ways – but in a world where mass shooters are plaguing the news cycle and destroying lives, JOKER argues that understanding society’s illnesses and diving into the criminal mentality are not synonymous with forgiveness. Sometimes, it’s important to look at how the very same place we call home has expelled, marginalized and turned a blind eye to those who have turned it into a killing ground ruled by fear. There are no redeeming qualities for monsters like the Joker, but some monsters are man-made.

Verdict: JOKER will be the most talked about film of the year, if it isn’t already, but it’s a remarkable accomplishment on many levels. An intricate, layered and complex character study disguised as a comic book film – who makes these films anymore in Hollywood?

Grade: A

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