At the time of this writing, director Todd Phillips’s Joker is the highest grossing R-rated film of all time, has earned two Golden Globe wins for Best Actor in A Drama Motion Picture and Original Score with two individual nominations for Director of a Motion Picture and Drama Motion Picture, seven Critics Choice Awards nominations, and is likely to earn more nominations as members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences must conclude voting for the upcoming Oscars as of the end of the day this review publishes. Full disclosure: as a member of the Critics’ Choice Association, I did partake in voting, but if you’ve read my theatrical review, you’ll likely sense there is little conflict in my examination of the home release and its contents. Joker is certainly deserving of its technical recognition for direction, cinematography, performance, and score, but even on a repeat viewing, the things that concern, continue to do so. The delightful thing, though, is where there was only what the audience brought to the table in the theatrical experience, there’s a chance for solid answer within the home release. With Joker now available for home viewing, there’s an opportunity to crack the film open and get information directly from the source: director and co-writer Todd Phillips.
Rather than create excuses or create a grand statement, director Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver attempt to explore what makes someone, like the mythical DC Comics villain, the way they are. Before he becomes the Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a down-on-his-luck clown-for-hire whose meds are running out, is getting shunted off by the medical system he desperately needs, and is generally ignored by society at large. All of this begins to change for Arthur when an incident on a commuter train becomes the catalyst for a shift within him, a shift from wallowing in the tragedy of his life to seeing it as it truly is in all its terrifying glory: a dark, twisted comedy. Interestingly, the approach taken by Phillips and Silver to convey the origin of one of the most chaotic literary figures is by far the most appropriate and the most frustrating as everything the audience observes may be undeniably bullshit, making it the best joke of all.
If you’re willing to dig into spoiler territory, keep on reading. Otherwise, there’s still time to head back to the spoiler-free theatrical review to get my thoughts without tainting your experience.
First, let’s get into the special features so you have a better sense of what you’re bringing home.
Featurette “JOKER: Vision & Fury” explores everything from the vision for the film, character development, set design, costuming, to Phoenix’s approach, and more. For fans of the film or for people just interested in gaining some insight from multiple perspectives (those of producer Bradley Cooper, casts member Zazie Beetz and Phoenix, composter Hildur Guðnadóttir, and others), “Vision & Fury” is the place to begin. It’ll help set the table for the director’s commentary, though that’s only available digitally via iTunes. For example, while looking at unused footage of the original bathroom sequence post-train shooting, Phillips discusses the process of breaking down the concept into what eventually makes it into the theatrical cut. Moments like these really highlight how Phillips possesses a clear vision of the rules of the film. One thing that must be acknowledged that’s been misrepresented slightly is a comment by Phillips that this isn’t the real Joker from DC Comics lore and that what we’re witnessing is a retelling from an unreliable narrator. (That’s certainly the reading that this reviewer took away both times watching Joker.) Except what Phillips states before saying this is “[T]here’s many ways to look at the movie.” Phillips never concretely declares the truth, allowing the audience to make the decision for themselves. This is a recurring statement throughout the special features anytime discourse turns to the internal truth of the film.
The other special features are significantly shorter by comparison to “Vision & Fury,” but still offer some interesting tidbits for the curious or fanatical. “Becoming Joker” is a brief 1:26 minute montage of Phoenix transitioning from Fleck at the start of the film to Joker by the end utilizing many of the visual cues from the marketing which saw the evolution of one persona to the other projected onto Phoenix’s body. In “Please Welcome…Joker!,” Phillips walks the audience through the “Murray Franklin Show” introduction sequence, offering a specific example of the variety of approaches Phoenix applied during filming. Phillips frequently discusses Phoenix’s willingness to approach each take from a different mental perspective, and seeing it in action enables the audience to see just how much Phoenix’s acting choices impact both the performance and how it’s received. The finale featurette, “Joker: A Chronicle of Chaos,” is literally nothing more than a montage of chronological stills from the film set to Guðnadóttir’s beautiful score.
Like most new releases, Joker is getting the 4K UHD treatment from Warner Bros. Home Release. Those with the proper equipment can enjoy Dolby Vision HDR, as well as a Dolby Atmos remixed soundtrack designed for home theater systems. Audio options also include Dolby Digital 5.1, Descriptive Audio, and language selections in French and Spanish. Audio settings include English for the Deaf or Hard of Hearing, or just those that find subtitles helpful to follow dialogue, as well as French and Spanish options. Watching the film on a simple 4K LG television, the dialogue is clear, the score remains haunting, and the cinematography from frequent Phillips cinematographer Lawrence Sher is beautiful, capturing not just the feel of the 1980’s but the sensation of Arthur’s descent into madness. Joker is a gritty film, focusing on natural colors, lighting, and real locations over something more manufactured. This is one of many reasons why the film has garnered critical attention from a variety of critics groups in categories outside of direction and performance. Especially when Phillips’s direction takes on a more improvisational, documentary feel, the dark blacks, the sickly greens, and mucusy yellows do more than set a scene for Phoenix’s Arthur to inhabit, but come alive as a visual representation of the sickness Arthur sees permeating every aspect of his life. The blacks are a touch overpowering, making things a little harder to see in terms of clarity for the audience, but they do fall in line with the visual language of Joker. Of the things most impressive about the visual components of the film, which the 4K UHD experience doesn’t degrade, are the reds in the blood, all of which Phillips states in the commentary are computer-generated as no blood was used on set.
The fact remains, however, the Joker is a total conundrum.
While all comic book characters have had their origins altered, adjusted, or tweaked as writers, readers, and the times change, but one thing has been constant about the Joker: his beginnings are an enigma. On additional viewings, it’s even clearer that Phillips and Silver make zero attempt at making anything the viewer sees trustworthy, other than two things: Arthur’s need to feel seen and his pain. In doing so, the two deserve all the accolades that fans of the film heap upon them. The fact that there are only a few key indicators as to when Arthur is engaged in the real world versus his delusions, and which parts of the film reside in the real world, make the entire experience as deep and rich as the 1988 Alan Moore one-shot comic “Batman: The Killing Joke” which attempts to ground the villain via an origin story. The comic is hotly debated for its truthfulness as some later “Batman” stories use some parts and shunt off others, but the details within the story regarding Joker’s origin are considered by some as real and others as pure fiction. Front to back, Joker feels the exact same way.
This is, sadly, a double-edged sword as Joker is absent in meaning. Before this notion is pushed aside as the ravings of someone who doesn’t get it, consider the fact that the commentary from Phillips, which heaps enormous deserved praise upon cast and crew, also acknowledges that the film is largely a Rorschach test in which the audience decides what things mean. Phillips isn’t the first director to purposefully withhold their private thoughts on meaning or intent to give the audience ownership of meaning, but there’s a severe danger for his intent to get missed among the violence. Earlier in the film, Phillips notes that the scenes in which Arthur meets with his social worker are to highlight the increasing need for universal healthcare, not that Arthur’s a budding sociopath. This is well and good except that the narrator is unreliable, so how do we know the circumstances within which this conversation is happening? How do we know that Arthur doesn’t feel let down versus actually being abandoned? Or later, in a beautiful sequence after Arthur confronts Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), Arthur removes everything from the refrigerator and climbs in. Some interpret this as the real end of the film and the rest is a delusion, a product of brain failure as Arthur dies in the machine. Others find it confusing as to the purpose in relation to Arthur’s journey. As explained in the commentary, the scene is meant to explore what Arthur might be like as he’s either low on meds or completely run out, sending his insomnia running wild. As a great deal of improvisation was encouraged between Phillips and Phoenix, that scene is just something that Phoenix does during one of the takes. It holds no significance beyond it was something to try. Phillips goes on to explain that, in the moment, it made sense, but feels less convinced of it as he speaks to us watching. And even with Phillips’s constant condemnation of the lack of political message as, he claims, the Joker is apolitical, the line of dialogue Arthur now as Joker exclaims to Franklin (Robert De Niro) right before shooting him is, “What do you get when you cross a mentally-ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? I’ll tell you what you get. You get what you fucking deserve.” That isn’t the statement of someone apolitical or an agent of chaos. That’s someone who’s angry, hurt, feels abandoned by society at large, and wants revenge. This is resentment with a loaded weapon and a will to act. In this one exchange of dialogue, much of what Phillips and Silver want the audience to believe about Arthur as seeking kindness from someone, anyone, who could acknowledge his existence and help him is tossed out with this brief manifesto. For all of the slow burn, rumbling turmoil throughout Gotham lurking on the outskirts of Arthur’s story, a story which Phillips seems keen to focus on as a plea for universal healthcare, goodness, and caring for our fellow man — you know, the whole “one bad day” scenario other films have similarly explored — despite overlaying a great deal of haves versus have-nots narrative threads overtop, all audiences will truly remember is Arthur’s desperate, angry act of rage. It may not be what Phillips and Silver intend (they won’t tell us), but that’s the moment audiences will remember. No matter how many Charlie Chaplin references, clever tricks to battle the senses, or beautiful performances from the cast you apply, the only thing the audience knows for sure by the end is that we live in a society.
Joker Home Release Bonus Features
4K UHD Combo Pack, Blu-ray Combo Pack, and DVD Special Edition
- JOKER: Vision & Fury (22:26)
- Becoming Joker (1:26min)
- Please Welcome… Joker! (2:46)
- Joker: A Chronicle of Chaos (3:05)
iTunes Digital Exclusive
- Director’s commentary with Todd Phillips
Available on digital beginning December 17th, 2019.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD January 7th, 2020.