Review: ‘Joker’

Joker final one-sheet poster

Joker | Todd Phillips | October 4, 2019

Over the years, we’ve seen many different incarnations of the famed Batman character The Joker but none quite like the one portrayed in Todd Phillips’ Joker. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a man barely holding on to life, let alone with his sanity. He lives a lonely existence as a clown who holds signs outside of stores going out of business or performs to try and bring some cheer to children’s hospitals. He comes home to a sad apartment that he shares with his mother (Frances Conroy), where he spends a lot of his time in his own head, imagining spending time on Murray Franklin’s (The Irishman‘s Robert De Niro) late-night comedy show – one of the many instances where Phillips pulls from Martin Scorsese’s filmography, mainly The King Of Comedy. Fleck wants to be a stand up comic but as his mom coldly puts it, you have to be funny to do that.

Joker still - Arthur in makeup

Fleck suffers from a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably, which is just one of the many reasons why society has cast him aside and spit on him after he’s long been beaten on the ground. This literally happens a few times during the film’s first hour, and you can’t help but feel for the way that the world has treated him. He pines to enter a romantic relationship with his neighbor Sophie (Deadpool 2‘s Zazie Beetz), one of the rare glimmers of hope that he finds in his life of pain and squalor.

But he can’t catch a break. We all know that this is Phillips’ own spin on the character, a loose “origin story” of sorts. We know that Fleck has to go to hell and back to get to the place that makes him into the titular character that we’re anticipating. It isn’t easy to watch him get a beatdown from a bunch of Wall Street bro-y employees of Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), but it’s even more disturbing when he finally has enough and snaps, unleashing a violent fury that Phillips’ co-written script was heading towards full steam ahead. It isn’t a shock that it happens, and some may say that these men have it coming. But it’s how Phillips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher frame it that makes it so uncomfortable, unflinching, and ultimately unforgettable, leaving you questioning just where you stand with the brutal killing that unfolds.

Joker still - Arthur on stage

Like in today’s world, there’s a huge class divide in the bleak and depressing Gotham City, one that causes the everyday people of Gotham to embrace this clown killer who is propped up as a hero of sorts for taking out some of the wealthy elite. Fleck finally gets a taste of blood and soon discovers a reality of his own, finding the truth about his own existence and the world at large and finally begins to take control of his life, while simultaneously causing Gotham to unravel into complete mayhem. It’s not the Super Rats city anymore; Gotham City finds the anti-hero it had been desperate to find.

While it’s amazing to see the level of filmmaker that Phillips has grown into (I mean, this is the same guy who made Road Trip), Joker rests firmly on the fractured shoulders of Phoenix. It’s impossible to imagine the film working without him, as he brings a completely different take to a character who we thought could never be brought to such heights again. There’s the physicality of the role. Phoenix who is disturbingly thin here, and he sharply pivots across his emotional range – laughing one minute, crying the next, and sometimes both at the same time. At first, your audience may nervously laugh when he bursts out into laughing fits, but as the film goes on, the laughs take a sinister turn, one that you can’t quite shake as the film comes to its wild climax. But this is a role of isolation, one that is purely based in Fleck’s head, one where he is the central star of his own show, one that no one else is interested in.

Joker still - Murray and Arthur

Philips and co-writer Scott Silver showcase this violence in such a realistic and to the point manner that it is a thought-provoking take on today’s world and the effect that mental illness, violence, and the media have on creating instances of horror that Fleck engages in that. It’s no surprise that Joker has been privy to so much scrutiny and controversy about its potential influence on individuals who may see the film as a celebration of violence or a call to arms for them to take their pain and anguish out on those who they feel slighted by. But it also challenges the notion of these bloody acts and what it says about our society, holding a mirror outward for us to look within. Although based in a time period between the 70s and 80s, it’s a completely timely piece of filmmaking that resonates in grisly fashion, almost bordering on feeling like a modern-day horror film, helped by the hauntingly appropriate score from composer Hildur Guðnadóttir.

However, the script’s first half sets the table in a necessary fashion that can sometimes feel a bit repetitive and bleary, but it’s a necessary tool to show how downtrodden and trapped this man is. The film really takes shape after a pivotal realization about the truth of Fleck’s psyche, and Phillips shifts into high gear and never looks back. While the film does feel very much like a standalone origin story, it ties more-so to the Batman canon that you’re initially led to believe. Maybe too much so, as there are a few familiar sequences that we’ve seen before and didn’t need to see again. Not only that, but it makes you realize that the film may have worked fine on its own without being engulfed in the world of Batman, instead showcasing the descent into madness of a man battling mental illness, who finally feels seen through acts of horror after decades of being ignored. While it’s clear that we’re meant to follow the isolated “the star of the show is me” worldview of Fleck, the supporting cast – including comedian/actor Marc Maron and the cop duo played by Bill Camp and Shea Whigham – doesn’t get too much to work with, essentially turning them into pawns in his game when deemed necessary.

Joker still - Arthur on the bus

There has been an overwhelming amount of dialogue and controversy since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where it took home the prestigious Gold Lion prize. It has seen a bit of a sour turn from critics and on social media in the weeks leading up to its release this Friday, and it’s clear that this is just the beginning. While some are understandably worried about the sort of message that the film may send, there are also plenty of worthwhile dives into the idea of those who desperately need our help being turned away and left to rot alone, while the rich get richer and everyone else is left to fend for themselves. They may not turn to the hero they need – as we have heard before – but the one they deserve, for better but also worse.

Not all of Joker works as well as it should and it’s anything but subtle, but it’s hard to shake what unfolds throughout, especially during the final moments where it all takes shape and comes into its own in a thrilling fashion. You take career-best work from Phillips and a lead performance for the ages from one of our best working actors in Phoenix, and you have a film that is going to leave many audience members feeling one way or another. At a certain point, you may begin to feel numb to all the chaos that unfolds, but isn’t that akin to the feeling we have right now when one mass shooting after another occurs and nothing gets done? That may be Phillips’ point. Or maybe he just set out to have audiences leave their theaters feeling unsettled, something that Joker undoubtedly achieves.

Rating: 8.0/10