Written by: Johnny Marcondes
Directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix, Joker is the first one off DC film to be released under an R rating. Being the first of its kind, does Joker live up to all of the overwhelming expectations that almost everyone set for it or does it flounder from the lack of punch line power?
Joker as a film finds itself in this unique space where it’s in it’s own universe unattached and not bound to certain rules that we’ve grown accustomed to in superhero films. There’s no caped crusader running around dressed like a gimped up bat and the villains are more sympathetic than the supposed “good guys” of their universe. Where do you begin to tell a story in a world that we’ve seen numerous times with an iconic character that’s been in the limelight of comic book films and television since the 60’s?
Like watching a beautiful train wreck unveiling before your very eyes, Joker quickly grabs your attention and holds it for the two hours and two minute run time until it eventually ends. Two hours and two minutes breeze by as you’re captivated by the performances of Joaquin Phoenix in what will go down as a career defining performance.
Prior to its release Joker was met with universal praise from its showing in various film festivals earning it early talks of an Oscar worthy performance by the new clown prince himself Joaquin Phoenix. It should be noted that due to this early praise Joker was given more obstacles to overcome as all the attention and buzz surrounding it labeled the film as one of the most overhyped films to be released this year. Nevertheless, did the early praises of Joker hurt the film or were those early critics on to something? Here’s my review:
In a city that’s been portrayed as gritty and crime infested numerous times before, Joker makes this old painted picture of Gotham feel vibrant, fresh and real with their sense of grime and believable violence. You won’t find anyone in a suit freezing the bank vault or a man dressed as a scarecrow making people hallucinate. Instead what you’ll find is something more scary, you’ll find a relatable world where people only care about themselves and people turn a blind eye to those in need of help. A world that reflects our very own incredibly well to the point that you’re often left with a sense of being uncomfortable.
Taking place in 1980’s Gotham, Joker follows the journey of one Arthur Fleck a stand up comic and man who suffers from a mental illness working as a party clown. Living with his single mother as her caretaker, Arthur dreams of his big break and meeting his hero late night talk show host Murray. As Arthur pursues a career as a stand up comedian, life hands him more than one short end of the stick. After a few strings of bad luck both in his career and life, Arthur finds himself in a position of power and fame that could get him what he always wanted.
This gritty and cruel world is where you’ll find Arthur Fleck, a sympathetic but unstable comedian who’s having just one too many bad days. Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck instantly conveys this sense of self doubt, mental illness, sadness, childlike whimsy and a longing nagging sense of wanting to be something greater than you are. It’s a portrayal that’s believable, relatable and uncomfortable to watch as you see a man be beating both mentally and physically numerous times.
From the second we meet him it’s painfully obvious that something is off with Arthur. In fact, within the first few scenes of the film director Todd Phillips gives you an extremely quick and subtle glimpse at the man behind the paint. Working as a party clown in the rundown streets of Gotham, Arthur dances his way through each painful day that greets him like a stiff punch to the face. As a character, Arthur is nothing like we’ve ever seen before from DC.
This isn’t a story of your clown prince of crime running around causing chaos simply for the sake of anarchy or a punch line. This is the story of a man who’s been hurt by society and beaten down by life to the point where everything he does is something that’s not outside of the realm of reality and that’s what it so terrifying. From being a simple party clown with a few off traits to the donning this new persona of The Joker, Arthur Fleck is by far the best written character we’ve ever seen from DC.
Arthur Fleck is a character who has been beaten down so bad that you can’t help but sympathize with him. As life steamrolls through him you almost find yourself rooting for Arthur as he begins to embrace some of his darker tendencies. While I personally will never condone his actions, the fact that this is man clearly suffering from a mental illness plays a big role in this connection to the viewer. Throughout the film you’re seeing everything Arthur has to endure and at times it’s hard to watch. There are moments you feel genuinely bad for him and seeing him snap after going through what he did it’s easily something that you’re questioning yourself for allowing or sweeping under the rug.
How many of you have seen someone get bullied or harassed and turned a blind eye? How many of you have laughed at someone who was suffering be it emotionally, physically or going through something that makes you cringe? Arthur has all those moments in spades and you have to sit through it all which makes parts of the film feel uncomfortable. You know he’s the villain in the story but once you see everything that makes him the villain a part of you can’t help but see him in a slightly different light or at least understand his motivation.
Each time Arthur is on screen you can’t help but be drawn in. Joaquin Phoenix completely commands your attention and his presence is so captivating that you can’t help but keep your eyes on everything he does. Each mannerism, every tick, glimpse and movement he makes you’re fully invested. Before going into the film I must admit that I was a little on the fence about it because of those early reviews and overwhelming praise. That being said, I can completely agree with the fact that yes this is an Oscar-worthy performance by Phoenix.
There isn’t a single moment in this film where Phoenix lets his guard down and the story suffers. Each scene feels it’s with purpose and Phoenix’s performance throughout the film is a constant knockout that has you invested in everything that not only he but other characters are doing. Joker attempts and honestly succeeds at being something that’s not like any other comic book film we’ve seen to date.
Arthur, as this complex yet simplistic character who suffers from a mental illness is the perfect contrast to the gritty Gotham. From his suit to his face paint, Arthur’s is beautifully tossed into this run down Gotham that’s littered by trash and dull tones coloring the streets. Run down apartments, mental hospitals, piles of trash and moments where you get a glimpse of the better side of Gotham through Thomas Wayne’s lifestyle is this incredible visual that Todd Phillips beautifully captured. The juxtaposition of rich and poor, light and dark, the mentally ill and “normal” people play off each other so well.
While the film has its fair share of comedy in it, don’t expect a film starring a clown to have a feel good punchline. Joker is by far more of a drama piece than anything else. Think Requiem For A Dream meets The King of Comedy all wrapped in a DC package starring the most compelling and flushed out version of the Joker to date. As much as this film is a drama there’s also hints of a thriller as yes this movie is about as dark as you think it would be. To be fair, as far as rated R films go it isn’t that violent however, the violence that is shown feels darker than others.
Every violent scene in Joker has this unsettling feeling behind them because most of the times they catch you off guard. Arthur as a character is very unstable and unpredictable, the moments he does lash out tend to catch you off guard and feel so natural that you’re always a bit taken aback. The way Arthur is able to commit these crimes is by far the scariest thing to be done in a comic book film. There’s no acid flower or boxing glove punch gun in the film, instead you’re given a man who commits crimes in a believable manner with real life weapons in a way that’s brutal and shocking.
By the end of the film I needed time to process what happened. For a two hour film so much happens that you’re left in this state of shock, awe, excitement and wanting more in the best possible way. If you were to tell me a year ago that DC would have not only the most compelling but the best comic book film to be released to date I would have laughed at you. By the end of this film, I couldn’t help but feel a bit in love with it.
I know me saying that makes my review sound biased but that was never my intention. Joker is a simply a beautifully filmed and written movie with a cast that pulled no punches and gave a performance that hours after ending, still stayed with me. There are so many brilliant scenes here and scenes that were filmed so beautifully that I honestly have nothing negative to say at all. Joker is a film that should be sought out and recognized for it is, a brilliant character driven narrative.
If you’re going in looking for the next Heath Ledger then go elsewhere. This Joker isn’t your answer to the Dark Knight, Arthur Fleck isn’t an agent of chaos he’s a man who wants to be noticed. This isn’t your “you wanna know how I got these scars?” Joker, Arthur Fleck isn’t looking to send a message just to upset the balance or watch the world burn, his message is much more simple and relatable.
Joker is a film that takes a well known source material and turns into something fresh, new and different but true enough to it’s characters feel authentic and that’s something that deserves all the praise in the world. My score for Joker: 5/5
Even though in my review I stated I couldn’t find anything negative to say about the film that doesn’t mean that Joker is without fault. Sure there are a few fleeting moments in the film that deter from the main narrative or drag on just a moment too long but it never leaves a sour taste in your mouth. One of the biggest obstacles the film had to overcome was telling this story without the most critical character to counter the Joker, that being Batman. How do you tell a Joker story without the Bat after all?
While Batman was not featured in the film and it’s no spoiler that he was never intended to be in it, the film does well enough on it’s own to stand tall without the obvious nod to the characters comic history. Joker manages to find a happy medium of creating a new and exciting take on a familiar character while simultaneously referencing enough Batman lore to tie it in nicely. Does Joker work without Bruce hunting him down? In a simple and spoiler free way, yes it does.
Joker as a film is able to give you a satisfying drama and crime piece about a villain without a superhero to stop him in this grounded comic book film. Much of the film has this surreal but alluring presence where they play with both the characters psyche as well as the audiences. Much of Jokers more compelling and dramatic moments are filmed in a way that leaves the audience feeling unsure of what’s actually real or not. This kind of story telling opens the film up to multiple speculations about what actually happened and gives the character of Arthur more depth with multiple viewings.
Given Arthur’s mental illness and some revelations that were made as the film progresses it’s hard to tell just what really happened and that’s fine. Joker is the type of film that challenges you to really break it down and has more than one ending depending on how you interpret it. Personally speaking, I can’t begin to express how beautifully shot and written this film was. While many will go into the film already with expectations and a sense of being overly hyped, the film honestly never seems to disappoint as a character study. This isn’t a high pace crime drama it’s a slow boiling character piece that simmers for a while before exploding all over the kitchen.