“Joker”- Movie Review
When Warner Bros. announced years ago that an R-rated standalone Joker movie was in the works, what do you think people were expecting to see? Definitely something dark. I’m not sure how you could do a safe hard R portrayal of the most notorious supervillain of all time. No doubt it would probably be violent, twisted and brutal, which makes sense considering how violent, twisted and brutal the Joker character is. If all this was expected, it’s funny how, upon the movie’s release, people got upset that it fit the criteria. So what exactly about Todd Philip’s Joker struck such a nerve? Well let’s explore that shall we?
Set in 1981, the film introduces us to Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a clown-for-hire struggling to maintain the remaining threads of his sanity while living in a bleak, crime-infested Gotham City. Isolated, severely depressed and suffering from a condition that causes him to laugh painfully and uncontrollably, Arthur is desperate to find happiness in a world that constantly bears down on him. When a violent encounter pushes him to the breaking point, the Arthur we know begins to disappear, and from the ashes comes a maniacal alter ego- the Joker.
There has been a lot of talk surrounding this movie. Some of it good, some of it bad. Some of it needlessly hysterical. As much as I would love to dissect every facet of this controversy, I won’t. I’m not here to argue about the film’s content or whether or not it should exist in this day and age. I am here to simply share my thoughts on what is perhaps the most powerful film I’ve seen this year.
Joker is by no means a pleasant experience. It’s dark, intense and deeply disturbing, so much so that there are times when you’d swear you were watching a straight-up horror movie. The film insists that you not only witness Arthur’s struggle, but that you feel it as well. You’re placed in a perpetual state of unease, which I think is appropriate for the type of story being told here. And reason its effectiveness works so well is because of a combination of three standout elements.
The first is Todd Philips’ masterful direction. He frames the city of Gotham in such a way that you’re able to feel the enormity of the city and the oppressive weight it places on the characters’ shoulders. The environment is beautifully captured and realistically portrayed. Much of it harkens back stylistically to the gritty neo-noirs of the 1970s. Philips uses simple techniques to bury you further and further into Arthur Fleck’s deteriorating psyche, a place from which most of the horror stems. He also doesn’t lean too heavily into the violence. There are violent moments for sure, but most of it doesn’t occur until the third act and when it does happen, it’s not shown in a cool or fun way. It’s scary, just like how real-world violence is.
Element number two is the man responsible for bringing Arthur to life. Joaquin Phoenix delivers a magnetic performance that’s deserving of at least an Oscar nomination. The film does a fantastic job chronicling Arthur’s downward spiral, and Phoenix’s acting perfectly reflects three stages of the character’s evolution- the broken man on his last leg of sanity, the confident man who’s teetering on the edge of pure insanity, and lastly, the man who becomes Joker. The humanity he brings to the role is also worthy of note, as it helps make Arthur a sympathetic character in the very beginning. You feel sorry for him. You pity how much he’s struggling and hope (despite knowing his eventual fate) that he’ll someone follow a different path. But as the film crosses the threshold into another stage of Arthur’s madness, you become less sympathetic towards him and more frightened of who he has become.
The horror aspect is accentuated by the film’s score, the third outstanding element. Composed by Icelandic musician Hildur Guonadottir (who also did the haunting music for HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries), the score perfectly conveys Arthur’s metamorphosis. It’s beautiful, hypnotic and unsettling. It can get under your skin, but I mean that in the best way possible.
With all this being said, is Joker really worth all the negative fuss? No, not really. Though I do understand people’s concerns. The film puts a spotlight on a wide range of issues- such as mental health and failures of the mental health support system, the importance of human compassion, and what role we as a society may have in molding someone as coldly anarchistic as the Joker- and these ideas are handled responsibly by the filmmakers. As a movie, it’s an excellent piece of art. If you’re the least bit curious about it, I suggest you check it out and decide for yourself whether or not its quote-on-quote “dangerous”. Just know that you might not be leaving with a smile on your face.
Cosmic Grade- 4.5/5 Stars