I remember this time last year when I had mixed feelings about a Joker origin story coming from the director of ‘The Hangover’ trilogy. However, after seeing and processing it for over a week, I can say I was absolutely blown away!
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz, Brett Cullen, and Robert De Niro, ‘Joker’ is the latest “Comic-book origin story” in a movie industry flooded with Marvel and DC movies.
Set in 1980s Gotham City, the film follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally-troubled man who begins to descend down a path of madness and towards a transformation into the criminal known as “The Joker.”
I don’t even know where to begin with this one, like seriously I don’t. It has been a long time since I walked out of the cinema and felt like I had to have a breather for at least a few hours. If you haven’t seen it yet, but also want to get my opinion on the film, I’m going to simply state right now that you should stop what you’re doing and see this film ASAP! But I must warn you, this is a tough movie, and if you’ve ever suffered (or are currently suffering) from a mental illness, this might not be the best movie for you. This is a deeply disturbing character study, and it affected me in ways I never expected. So, there’s my warning for you all. Anyway, back to the review!
When thinking about movies that have stuck with me long after viewing them for the first time, I never expected ‘Joker’ to be one of them. This is a grimy, unsettling and darkly funny look into mental illness and how a series of troubling events can genuinely affect not only a particular person but those around them. Yes, this is a very dark movie, but it’s beautiful in a sick and twisted way.
Firstly I have to talk about the elephant in the room, which is, of course, the titular performance from Joaquin Phoenix. You’ve already heard it across the internet, but Phoenix is phenomenal as Arthur Fleck. As soon as the film opens, you can’t see Phoenix at all. He completely loses himself within the body and mind of Fleck, and it may just be my favourite performance of the year! As the film progresses, Phoenix takes us down a path of madness, and I wouldn’t be wrong in saying that he carries the movie with this incredible performance. Seriously though, he loses himself within the role of this mentally unstable and unreliable protagonist, and it’s a remarkable performance!
Now, I know that most of you are wondering how I compare Joaquin Phoenix’s version of the Joker to Heath Ledger’s masterful performance in ‘The Dark Knight’. To be honest, I can’t really compare them. These are two completely different takes on the iconic villain, and both of these actors deserve all the praise in the world and beyond. Where Ledger’s version was a chaotic criminal mastermind who was the exact opposite of Batman, Phoenix is a mentally insane man who was shaped by Gotham City and its inhabitants. This leads to a unique version of the Joker who feels more like a mixture of Martin Scorsese’s Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), and Rupert Pupkin (The King of Comedy). Two characters both portrayed by Robert De Niro (who, I will talk about soon), and they happen to be eerily similar to Arthur Fleck.
This is a man who can’t fit in with our society. He is socially inept, and this is only made worse by his mental trauma and uncontrollable laughter (his laugh is both terrifying and devastating). Arthur Fleck is a man who is stepped on by society, and if it wasn’t for the pain he goes through daily, he might never have transformed into a dark and twisted persona. A persona that allows Fleck to feel comfortable and complete like he never had before. This is a version of the Joker unlike any before and one that I could easily spend another hour talking about. So yeah, Joaquin Phoenix is incredible as Arthur Fleck, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a lot of love during the upcoming awards season.
I briefly mentioned the connection to Scorsese films before, and this is evident in the tone, structure (I’ll talk more about these soon) and of course the addition of Robert De Niro as talk show host Murray Franklin. De Niro may only be in a handful of scenes, but he is excellent in the role of a man Arthur Fleck is “inspired” by. It’s great to see De Niro giving a great performance again, and it puts a massive smile on my face.
From Frances Conroy to Zazie Beetz, everyone else is excellent in ‘Joker’. Even though literally everyone is talking about Phoenix and how amazing he is in the movie, don’t let that take you away from the other great performances.
Moving on to another positive, which is the incredible score from Hildur Guðnadóttir. The horror movie-inspired score is a character on its own, and it goes hand in hand with the transformation of the film’s protagonist. The strings build tension and create a mood that seems to match Fleck’s transformation from depression to twisted happiness. It’s a hauntingly beautiful score, and it deserves more praise!
The cinematography from Lawrence Sher is simply incredible! In a world where superhero movies dominate the box office, you can quickly tell one apart from your average film. They all look and feel the exact same, even if they include different cast and crew members. ‘Joker’ on the other hand, feels like an actual movie. Again, the Scorsese influence is shown through multiple aspects of the film, and the cinematography is one of them. The way Sher shows us the dirtiness of Gotham City through the colour palette and lighting, makes us feel like we are living there and breathing the same filthy air that the characters are forced to. The framing of each shot is done with a purpose, and no frame feels unnecessary. All in all, this is a fantastic looking film.
Another positive I should mention is the way Todd Phillips handles ‘Joker’ as a writer/director. To be perfectly honest, Phillips has only made a couple of great movies and a lot of average/bad ones. Here though, you can tell he wanted to honour this iconic villain with the heavily inspired tone he went for. I briefly mentioned the similarities to Scorsese films like ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘The King of Comedy’, but you can tell he wrote and directed the film with those classic pieces of cinema as a guide for him. The influence from ‘Taxi Driver’ can be especially jarring at times, but it works well for this story Phillips is telling. Yes, it may pull very similar story beats from those films, but it is executed wonderfully. Todd Phillips did a great job with the directing, and with the help of Phoenix, the script is made even more enjoyable.
As I just mentioned, the only real negatives I had with ‘Joker’ have to do with the similarities to movies like ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘The King of Comedy’. Even though the similarities are quite obvious to people like me, it still works, and I can’t imagine the film being this good without those influences.
Overall, ‘Joker’ is an unsettling and masterful character study of one of the most iconic comic book/movie villains of all time. Philips transports us into the seedy and grimy world of 1980s Gotham City, and it’s hard to not be completely drawn into it. This is elevated even more from a career-defining performance from Joaquin Phoenix, whose utterly terrifying transformation into the character of Arthur Fleck is simply phenomenal. In addition to this, a haunting score, beautiful cinematography and fantastic performances, make ‘Joker’ a unique and downright disturbing origin story that will go down as one of the defining films of the decade. It may be a challenging film to sit through, but the rewards are more than worth it.