Directed by: Todd Phillips
Written by: Todd Phillips & Scott Silver
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert Di Nero, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy & Brett Cullen
Rating: R (for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images)
Genre: Crime, Drama, Horror
Runtime: 1 hr. 55 min.
Release date: Oct. 4, 2019
Studio: Warner Bros.
At this point the Joker is as iconic a character as the bat-winged vigilante whose comics originated him 80 years ago, so perhaps a solo film was inevitable, especially given the current golden age of recognizable IP. But don’t clown yourself into thinking this is just another night in Gotham City. Todd Phillips’s Joker has much more in common with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy than it does Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight or Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. Yes we’re watching a version of the Clown Prince of Crime, but his comic book heritage is less a legitimate inspiration for this film and more a marketable platter on which Phillips and company serve up a darkly poignant and chillingly feasible portrait of a disturbed individual and the systems that have failed him. They truly do not make them like this anymore.
Joaquin Phoenix is the best Oscar-less actor working today; however, if the next few months unfold the way I see them unfolding after Joker, that will be a grievance of the past. Phoenix has never disappeared into a role the way he disappears into Arthur Fleck and that is saying something given Fleck’s unhealthy and genuinely disconcerting skeleton-like disposition.
When we first meet Fleck it’s as a mild mannered, sign twirling clown who’s caring for his mother and one day dreams of becoming a stand up comedian. The problem is that the world keeps beating him down, literally and spiritually, and instead of laughing with him, everyone is laughing at him. At least that’s how Arthur sees it. So, after a lifetime of being pushed around, he decides to push back, adopting the persona of a psychotic killer clown and calling himself “Joker.”
While we are witnessing the origin of a murderous psychopath whose self-righteous acts of vengeance inspire a wave of protests and violence across Gotham, as a movie Joker is not glorifying violence nor depicting its protagonist in any positive light. Although we learn some horrifying key details about Arthur’s past that’ve undoubtedly contributed to his becoming unhinged, Phillips (better known for directing The Hangover trilogy) both writes (with co-writer Scott Silver) and shoots his film in such a manner that makes it indisputably clear that we are not to trust even Arthur’s account of events.
It’s easy to see how some might walk away from Joker with a bad taste in their mouth, though I’m sure few would site similar issues with their eyes. In an ironic twist, each frame from Cinematographer Lawrence Sher is a visual treat that captures the routine nightmares of a grimy 1981 Gotham City and presents them with artful flare and a luscious color palette. Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir (Arrival, Sicario, The Revenant) works a similar magic with a relatively restrained score that reflects the growing menace inside Arthur, proving the old adage “less is more.”
Everything about Joker, from its unimpeachable starring performance to its more technical aspects, is designed to absorb you into the mindset of someone who’s not only predisposed to adversity, but needlessly grew up knowing little of anything else. It’s so effective that it’s already stirring conversation about important topics like violence and mental illness— particularly in America— as well as the role society plays in shaping dangerous individuals such as the Joker. However, what struck me most about Joker is its emphasis on treating everybody with kindness. As the film points out, it doesn’t take much to lend a helping hand to someone in need, and who knows? Some day you might even be the beneficiary of your own empathy.
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2 (out of five)
Those were my thoughts on Joker. Have you had a chance to check this film out? If so, what did you think? Were you as captivated as I was? And would you like to see WB and DC do more of these standalone character studies? Shout off in the comments below, I want to hear from you!