Todd Phillips’ Joker is a bold, shocking and utterly beautiful piece of cinema that has not only taken the time to re-imagine one of the greatest villains in cinematic history, but has made a satisfying move of reimbursing something fresh and innovative within the beloved comic book universe. The film separates itself from the rest of the DC Extended Universe, its characters, its captivation and exposure towards real-world troubles through its whole entirety—and it’s exhilarating. Free to move and choose whatever, despite its ardent fan base, Joker showcases the true essence a comic book film should hold, stemming the undeniably unsettling and compelling intensity a sad clown’s journey to self-destruction can intake.
Set in 1981, the highly anticipated film embarks on the failed comic life of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) who seeks connection as he walks the dark and sad-sack streets of his bleak hometown: Gotham City. Settling for a career as an “entertaining” party clown one day for the folks that dispute him and undergoing a guise of futile projection the next, Arthur wears two masks that undeniably feel and induce similar experiences from the society that disregards, isolates and intimidates him constantly. And, even though his character is a murderous and gruesomely violent super-villain, I can’t help but feel sadness. Sadness that motions to sympathy and pity as we learn of his struggle with a mental illness that causes him to burst into a sinister laughter at the most absurd times, and how his existence in a society so harsh and cruel leaves him being claimed as one of life’s “freaks.” But, with a run-time of two hours that quickly encloses to a brilliant and fascinating experience, we soon see Fleck descend into chaotic madness and transform into the criminal mastermind that we all famously know as The Joker.
Unable to engage with the world around him, Arthur is simply a a victim of the impossible rules and codes that structure the his surroundings—he’s a loner and misunderstood man that is as broken and busted as the walls that surround Gotham City—yet his existence becomes unknowable by the day, retreating further and further as his eyes bear pain and sadness as another laughing fit overcomes in the worst possible situation. Situations that cause Fleck to contemplate the seven different types of medication that drag pointlessness within the system of his life, and ultimately erupt him to liberate a cold whisper that signifies the beginning cry and descent into the path of the Joker: “Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy.”
Joker is ultimately an emotional and chaotic story of how a villain was made. A slow-burning study of how the invisibility and misconstrued existence of a person begins to decipher and dissolve around their life and turn them into someone they never knew they could deliver. Joaquin Phoenix does a fantastic job portraying Arthur, making up the majority of the film with his strong creative madness and pitiless eyes that are subjected towards his painted-on smile with utter disturbance, as well as the precise physicality transformation that grounded the actor’s nature to a touch.
Losing a dramatic fifty-two pounds to reflect Fleck’s thin, frail and hungry appearance, shuffling along corridors, swinging back his cigarette with elegance, running like there’s no tomorrow and dancing with an unsettling grace, there’s no acknowledging that his character is anything that we’ve seen from previous Jokers Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger. What we’re seeing instead is a character so broken-hearted and flawed from society that his destined dream of becoming a stand-up comedian fails as the dark shadows of his life enclose around him and entwine to perfectly simulate him into a violent and fractured soul. Phoenix embodies The Joker like no one else, succeeding immensely through captivating and overwhelming moments while showcasing just how perfect his mournful and cold-blooded interpretation is to cinema.
While Phoenix does succeed in taking the limelight throughout, it’s worth noting that Frances Conroy also does magnificent job in portraying Penny, the quietly devastating mother to Arthur. And Zazie Beetz, as Sophie Dumond, while arguably underused, brings vital humanity and compassion to her scenes and life to her awkward and close-mouthed neighbor. Robert De Niro as late-night TV host Murray Franklin (and the most-talked about casting upon the film’s promotion) also astounds and brings a definite sharp magic and glimmer of light to Arthur Fleck’s entity. And there’s no doubting Todd Phillips’ love for The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver as the charm of their material (and lead actor) is sprinkled throughout—enhancing the film to bare a sense of sensation and admiration throughout its early 80s setting, and its directors that greatly influenced the gritty tale.
Visually, the divisive re-imagining of the comic villain brings exceptional power as each scene feels like it was reimbursed to capture a strong and subtle point of our prancing subject. The film adapts to the retro-feel quite eloquently, as cinematographer Lawrence Sher repeatedly focuses on faces that conceal the black-cloaked backgrounds of Gotham City, as well as reinforcing the early 80s image through long shots that encompass a studious nostalgic feel. Whether it be a wide shot of Joker relinquishing in his inventive contemporary steps or a close up shot of his obscure facial expressions that come across with the slightest ease, Sher captures what feels like a chaotic fantasy that DC would only have dreamed for.
Accompanying the dark undertones of DC’s corrupt underworld follows the powerful cello score from Hildur Guðnadóttir—a haunting selection that relates to the hollow fragments of Joker’s existence. Featuring Frank Sinatra’s “Send in The Clown” and “That’s Life“, Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage” and The Glitter Band’s “Rock and Roll Part 2“, it’s needless to say that the dashing soundtrack is one of the greatest elements of the film. Chained to the regime of one’s self, the simple notes from the pieces of music played effortlessly electrifies not only the glimmer of light that Arthur endures within his dances between the light and the shadows, but sinks to the very heart of the film. As a person who carries a wide passion for music in cinema, I’m exceptionally surprised that a film so devastating and chaotic could cause tears to bubble up frantically through the course of its melancholic, yet euphoric, soundtrack. And, quite simply, will relent to me discussing it’s solidity for years to come.
Despite its moral backlash from critics who claim the film to be “toxic”, “cynical”, and “irresponsible”, there’s no denying that Joker holds up a mesmerizing and tragicomic nightmare that no other sign-twirling clown could endure within another film. Todd Phillips’ standalone origin story Joker is by all means a film that depicts the notoriously callous murderer in a different light—a self-serving message that boldly creates sympathy for Batman’s worst enemy as the notable glimpses of his journal, mental stability and day-to-day life swarm around the careless streets of Gotham City—a look of how one man can change due to the society that surrounds him. But it’s also a tempting fantasy intake on the persecution and relief of embracing the ultimate escape from a hated world. It’s a solid message that exemplifies just how important acceptance truly is within humanity and the surpassing horrors that can form when it takes too long.
Overall, the film is a grungy and gritty darkened tale that exemplifies the hypnotic and horrifying principles one man can endure towards his bitter self-destruction. But, most importantly, it’s a story that enhances the hurt and harm a society can leave on a person. Arthur Fleck suffers constantly throughout the film, weeping alone as he plays by the rules and dances wildly on the puddle-spilled steps once overstepping the boundaries humanity has insufferably collided with him. Joker undergoes the darker-is-deeper tradition through it’s sad, brutally graphic and vicarious direction, and its refreshing to see—as is the delirious aggressiveness that leaves us in awe from his violence, but still leaves us feeling for his pain. It’s as shocking watching it on the big screen as it is realizing the many emotions one of the most iconic villains in cinema history has left on you once leaving the theater, which I think goes to show how impressive and masterful this re-imagined comic book film actually is.
The film is most definitely a depiction of The Joker that we’ve all been waiting for. It’s a oppressive outlook on the delusion of happiness and the slippery grip of trying to fit in with the world that offers nothing but control and grimacing looks. The film is, without a doubt, a sensation that births a new offbeat laughter and chaotic ring leader into the darkness of Gotham City—a beautiful and intense take on one man’s mental condition that permits him to finally indulge away from rejection. And, even though the film is more of a tragedy than it is a comedy, The Joker sure does have the last laugh at the end.
Joker is now in theaters worldwide