Directed By Todd Phillips
Starring – Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz
The Plot – The film centers around an origin of the iconic arch nemesis and is an original, standalone story not seen before on the big screen. Todd Phillips’ exploration of Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a man disregarded by society, is not only a gritty character study, but also a broader cautionary tale.
Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, adult language and brief sexual images
– Resoundingly profound. For a superhero genre film, this one offers plenty of poignancy towards its social commentary. In such, I’ve declared that this isn’t a Joker origin story, but rather a Joker transformation story, in the many avenues the film explores in what conjures up this finished product of a man. Loneliness, family, society, and even the medical profession are all brought into question here, more than likely sharing the blame in outlining Arthur as a product of his ever-decaying environment with all of them. Everything is given the ample amount of respect and time to age gracefully within the simmering of the other ingredients, giving us plenty of real life reflection for what transpires on-screen. In fact, from the self-righteousness established by the film in deciding what’s funny and what’s acceptable, “Joker’s” loudest ringing endorsement seems to be that it has dropped at the perfect place in time, during an age when sensitivity seems determined to ruin what’s used as artistic expression. It gives the film a therapeutic quality that I wasn’t expecting, and makes this one of the more poignant films to come from a comic book.
– Where it fits. What I love about the Joker character is that there are so many directions that you can take a film about him, based on his cryptic backstory which levels no concrete results. This is another one of those, and what’s even more beneficial is that it is so unlike any other Joker performance that has come before it. On a storytelling sense, there’s a fine line of respect paid here by Phillips to not only craft a fresh direction, but also to value the source material that it stems from. Because of such, there’s a fine balance of memorable Joker moments in the comics that come up here, and are wedged into the creativity of this story in a way that produces something fresh from them. In addition, there’s obviously a Wayne family inclusion that originally I wasn’t too happy about in a story so early in the antagonist’s life, but was riveted with how it transpired seamlessly on-screen. I find it hard to believe that any Batman or Joker fan would feel alienated because of this movie, and thanks to a grounded approach to psychological duress, “Joker” feels like the least fantastical, most human comic book movie offering that I’ve ever seen.
– Bring him out as Joker. That’s what you will do when Phoenix wins the Best Male Lead at this year’s Oscars. This performance is unlike anything that I’ve ever seen from anyone playing the role. On a physical level, Joaquin distorts and contorts his body in a way the emits the toxic brewing inside, and brings it to our unavoidable eyes to digest unnervingly. On an emotional level, it’s thunderous by the amount of empathy deposited to the integrity of the character, giving us a relatable approach to the character that feels for him without condoning his actions. Phoenix’s laugh alone, feels fresh and devilishly devious, and the way that he delivers it harvests a truthful complexion for people in real life who struggle with mental illness. It’s one of those performances that isn’t just entertaining for the way you can’t look away each time Phoenix is on-screen, but also conscious in the way it raises awareness for the matter of its mass. In addition, there are also brilliant turns from De Niro as a Johnny Carson-like talk-show host, another outside of the box taking from Zazie Beetz, and a euphoric trance from Francis Conroy, as Arthur’s mentally unstable mother. It rounds out an equally important ensemble for the role they each play in Arthur’s life, and offers not a single instance of downtime within the script for the professionalism that each of them exerts to the integrity of their characters.
– An immersive experience. This is easily Todd Phillips strongest artistic work to date, as he brings to life an inescapably nightmarish reality that visually reflects the kinds of daily terror that Arthur puts up with. The color scheme in each scene is beautifully constructed, offering a fine degree of varying complexity that never feels redundant or underwhelming by its subtlety. Throw in a satisfying shot composition with enough personality in its movements and meaning in its framing, and you have a presentation that is every bit believable as it is interpretive. I use those verbs because Gotham, New York is expanding every bit as much as the movie’s male lead, and thanks to the lived-in quality of production established with the sets and the transparency within its walls, we get a location that stands as a synonym to everything that comes from Arthur’s evolution. It gives the superhero genre a blueprint for artistic success that Marvel is often too afraid to roll the dice on, and establishes Phillips as a filmmaker far greater than the raunchy comedies that he is often relegated to.
– As a period piece. How important is the imagery in the film? It manufactures a stylish reminder that this film takes place in the 70’s, even when the film doesn’t waste time telling us. This more than anything may be Phillips biggest creative triumph, as the grainy cinematography from Lawrence Sher and the outdated combination of wardrobe and automobiles marry in a union that allows the audience to pick up on its respective setting. I love a movie that doesn’t beat you over the head with gimmicks pertaining to a certain age of style, and rather than being an aspect of the film that the characters move around, it’s this angle catering to the movement of the characters, residing the importance where it firmly belongs for the integrity of everyone and everything involved.
– My favorite musical score of 2019. Did you ever expect to hear that from a superhero origin story? But thanks to the work of composer Hildur Guonadottir, we have an atmospheric delve into the mind of a madman that is audibly reflected by her ominous notes and varying consistency. In the same way that each event predates what transpires within this young man’s life, Hildur too approaches the movie’s tones with a progression that establishes each pivotal moment with the proper tonal capacity, all the while doing it without ever beating us over the head with its obvious intentions. Her range in compositions are full of emotional depth, beginning the movie with fluffy vaudeville type piano to represent the happiness and ambition with Arthur performing, but eventually evolve into claustrophobic organ’s that capture the pain and isolation of the man in a way that a one million page script never could. It allows the audience further feeling within the heat of the moment, and tells us so much more about the intentions of the scene more than heavy exposition ever could.
– What’s the fuss? While this movie is R-rated, and full of adult language and mature subject matter, the amount and volume of the violence inside made me once again scratch my head, for why this movie is receiving such a controversy in the mass media. Is there violence? Yes, but it’s used so sporadically that its impact is felt much louder because it’s so rare in the film, making the graphic nature of it feel much deeper than in actuality it really is. I remember two scenes where the violence is shown to us the audience, and one is so far away that you can’t even see blood, and the second time is bolder and more personal in its offering to represent the full transformation of the character. So the violence here isn’t senseless, if it were, the movie would be a non-stop brutality fest, but there’s meaning in the violence that Phillips channels by reserving it for the moments that it feeds into the mentality of the character.
– Slowburn cinema. This is a near two hour film that isn’t the action-packed thriller that some were expecting. Instead, it’s a dedicated character piece that takes its time fleshing out some of the more intimate details of the character, so that they echo louder later. For me, I had no problem with this, as the challenging pacing allowed me to revel in the very same toxic life that the protagonist-turned-antagonist had to embrace, offering very few moments of therapeutic release for the character. You can see a superhero action film every other month during any movie year, but for a director to strip down everything that is defining about the genre, and conjure up something so intimately disturbing and unlike anything else within its predecessors, breeds creativity. It proves that legendary comic book villains don’t require snappy dialogue or music video style cinematography to sell their gimmick (I’m looking at you Suicide Squad), and redefines the genre in a way that will hopefully bring more fresh-takes for years to come.
– Responsible. Another aspect that is gaining a lot of controversy is the empathetic take towards the character that has audiences condoning his actions with a seedy past that has plagued him. I can see this argument from many angles within the movie, but ultimately the film is responsible enough to focus on the mentally unstable aspect of the character, giving every action and reaction a less-than desirable effect based on their rendering. Likewise, the screenplay never takes away from the innocent who are sacrificed as a result of the Joker’s actions on his course to vengeance. If the film removes these scenes completely from the finished product, then you have an argument for shameless propaganda through the eyes of a psychopathic killer, but as it stands “Joker” has its heart in all of the right places, all the while conjuring up some interesting questions about the world as a cautionary tale along the way.
– Small problems. There were the occasional problems within the screenplay and special effects that I ran into that served as a minor speedbump to my final grade. The first is the concept of this person within Arthur’s life, who we come to realize isn’t what they seem. I understand the intention with this on-going subplot, but the film doesn’t focus on it enough to truly render its impact when the curtain is lifted, and all the more its plot device adds an unnecessary disjointed quality to the film that had me questioning if things happen as we’re seeing them. On top of this, the film abruptly feeds us flashback exposition to hammer home the reality of this point, ignoring the superb job that the actors were doing without any of it. My second problem is with the light computer generation, mostly in regards to splatter blood, which felt every bit untimely as it did hollow in its coloring. You will know the one scene in particular that this hints towards, because it feels like blood from an additional body, and not reminiscent of the one with a varying shade of red already across his face in practical effects. It stood out as the lone sloppy scene of the movie, and could’ve been better with practical effects all across the board. Finally, the last scene of the movie, for my money, should be removed from the movie. There’s this impactful final image that displays Joker’s work that would’ve been an amazing final gut-punch, but the movie prolongs the runtime for three more minutes to hammer home an agenda that is unnecessary to anyone with even half a brain. Final shots are important on sending audiences home the right way, and the second final shot in this movie took away so much energy from what transpired during the third act that it almost lost a whole point on its own.
My Grade: 9/10 or A-