Joker (2019) Review
Director: Todd Phillips
Screenwriter: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Marc Maron
“What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?”
After all the fan fare, the genre-crushing award wins, the controversy surrounding its subject matter and the director’s choice to alienate half of its potential audience, the latest DC adaptation from Warner Bros. has finally been released to the viewing public, its dark and evocative presentation of perhaps the most iconic comic book villain of all time instantly branding the entirety of cinema with a J.M.W Turner red blotch that may be controversial but is absolutely unmissable.
Billed by co-screenwriter and director Todd Phillips (Old School; The Hangover) as ‘the only way to get a movie like Taxi Driver made in the modern studio system’, the inspiration for this much more adult comic book movie is clear, Phillips’ picture borrowing obvious visual cues and themes from Martin Scorsese’s 1970s masterpiece to look and feel almost timeless, but more importantly taking heed of the most important storytelling aspect of the Paul Schrader written picture; its focus upon its central character.
The Joker is just as recognisable as almost any fictional character in the modern age, his silver screen legacy having already lasted for over 50 years – longer than Superman, Spider-Man, the X-Men and almost the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe – and as such the character carried a lot of weight heading into this release, both in terms of marketability and in terms of expectation laid upon Phillips and his screenwriting partner Scott Silver (8 Mile; The Fighter). Through working backwards from their plot of a man sent to madness by a society that wronged him to the character of the joker, rather than attempting to write a joker origin story from the get-go, the screenwriting duo managed to place a level of focus upon the character that even Scorsese (who appropriately acted as producer on this film) would be proud of. The result: a dark, twisted and challenging Joker movie for a dark, twisted and challenging Joker. This is certainly not your typical Batman blockbuster.
Living on the fringes of a society that ridicules him, Arthur Fleck fails to confront long-lasting and ongoing mental health issues, unsafely unravelling as he takes haymaker after haymaker from life until he is no longer functional in the society he so detests. Joaquin Phoenix steps out of the shadow of Heath Ledger’s iconic portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) to offer a performance that ranges from identifiable if not relateable to deranged and disgusting, tipping the character beyond the confines of normalcy with an almost juvenile hint to every action and reaction he fantastically portrays. The actor, whose career has already gifted us sensational work time and time again, may have reached the very top of his game with this portrayal, an awards season push and fourth Oscar nomination likely to be in the actor’s future. It is simply impossible to take your eyes off him, the physicality of the performance bringing out distinct characteristics and meanings that aren’t necessarily present within the narrative or his character’s dialogue, The Joker transforming from the cartoonish nature of Nicholson’s portrayal, and the unhinged and unpredictable groundwork of Ledger’s Joker, to become someone more like the layered and deeply concerning character within comic book literature. Phoenix certainly gives Ledger a run for his money.
Phoenix’s anchoring of the film in such a manner, and the careful handling of his performance (and writing of his character) by Phillips and Silver, ensures that Joker’s narrative progresses in a manner that is understandable and relatively believable, avoiding the fantastical comic book movie tropes that have tied down previous iterations of the character to instead offer something entirely more human in its horrors.
Joker has come under fire from all sides of the political spectrum ahead of its release, the right suggesting it will cause mass hysteria or even mass shootings, while the left have been attacked directly by the film’s director in interviews, yet as a piece of art Joker doesn’t really choose a side, it more offers a mirror to you as a viewer and asks you to read into it what you will – Joker can clearly be read as the personification of the underprivileged left or right, and this is certainly by design. Perhaps this is why the discourse surrounding Joker has been so varied and why the movie has managed to capture the imagination of the community. Phoenix himself said recently that he was glad of the conversations as it meant Joker had achieved its purpose of being a provocative character study, and it is this distancing from the usually black and white, good and evil nature of comic book cinema, and culture as a whole in the age of social media, that is the biggest contributor to Joker being read as problematic. Joker as a character has historically within film been an evil man lacking in any route to sympathy towards him, yet here he has more nuance than that and hence so does the discourse. This is not something that should be lambasted, but instead celebrated. Characters with nuance and stories without clearly defined agendas are themselves the very essence of storytelling and the very life-blood of off-centre villainous characters like The Joker, and are certainly becoming more rare (especially in already established IPs/franchises). As a piece of art Joker has a tremendous amount to offer whether you’re a Batman fan, comic book fan, Taxi Driver fan or not, and has way too many spectacular elements to be missed for fear of what it might offer politically.
Visually, Joker is spectacular, mixing the glowing neon lights of the city-scape with wet and dreary weather to create a visual palette that is very similar to Taxi Driver and therefore a beautiful throwback in its own right, while the score from Hildur Guðnadóttir is one of the greatest works of music in 2019, her score coming to humanise Joker where necessary but more prominently defining the dread of what may come of the character’s unravelling through music that is praise-worthy in how comparable it is to other iconic thriller themes such as the main score in The Shining. Bringing these elements together is Todd Phillips, a hugely successful comedy director whose sensibilities for affecting drama were showcased at a very high level here, his visual constructions being perhaps the most surprising element of his offering but the performance he got from Phoenix and the focus he placed upon it deserving the most praise. Joker isn’t without cliche and does feel slow in the first act, but the way everything comes together in the complete package is close to astonishing.
So far as superhero movies go, you’re not likely to ever see a film so dedicated to exploring a character as Joker, while filmgoers without expectations may enjoy this film even more. Joker is a well constructed, beautifully scored, inspired piece of cinema gently caressing the performance of a lifetime from a true great of the silver screen. Get your award ballots ready, Joker might just be an awards season front-runner…