Joker (2019) | Directed by Todd Phillips
Written by Todd Phillips, Scott Silver | Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz
Based on characters created by DC Comics
There’s a very poignant line given by a therapist to character Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) in the movie Joker that basically sums up its overall message:
“Nobody gives a fuck about people like you.”
The character of the Joker has been featured on screen four times previously, but this is the biggest change in dynamics than ever seen before. So too is the environments those previous incarnations have played in. This time around there’s no mention of superheroes or capes. This is the most grounded, gritty and most realistic take on the character and the city of Gotham ever.
Christopher Nolan did a fantastic job rebirthing the Batman franchise after the blasphemy of Joel Schumacher turned it into a laughing stock. Both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight took the caped crusader back to its roots and created a more grounded Gotham and believable characters. Ok, Nolan’s third instalment The Dark Knight Rises suffered severe writing difficulties, but it’s middle film The Dark Knight is possibly one of the best comic book movies ever made and an injustice that it wasn’t nominated for best film at the Oscars that year. Part of the film’s success was mainly down to the amazing performance from Heath Ledger as the Joker. Ledger gave us a never before seen take on the character. A punk-rock anarchistic Tom Waits mixed with Sid Vicious. It was truly groundbreaking. I for one didn’t think anything would ever come close to that performance, especially as the next time we’d see the character on screen in the form of Jared Leto was just god damn appalling. Granted the movie Suicide Squad was also appalling, so I’ll kind of forgive him as I actually like Leto as an actor, but the whole concept and angle was completely off.
Anyways, this brings me to Joaquin Phoenix and his take on the character. Let me start by saying after walking out of the theatre I instantly knew I’d witnessed something very very special. There’s not many times a performance comes along like what Phoenix has produced, so as a movie fan I was privileged to have seen that on the big screen. We’re often reminded of the greats like, Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart, Richard E. Grant, Daniel Day-Lewis and don’t normally put our present day actors into that same category, but Phoenix has just showcased something extremely timeless. The character isn’t a super-villain (yet) he’s very much a lonely, sad, victim who’s suffered terrible abuse and injustice all his life from society in general. This is a man that lots of people will instantly identify with especially in the current climate we’re living in. You can’t help but empathise with him and feel his pain.
Arthur is a broken man, down on his luck, hopping from job to job, taking care of his sick mother whilst struggling with his own mental illness. Arthur has a neurological condition that when he gets anxious he nervously laughs. The laugh is a hugely upsetting part of the film as Phoenix plays it as if it’s almost painful or in some ways a panic attack, which has never been approached from this angle before. This condition and Arthur’s persistence of becoming a stand-up comedian hinder him completely, that people perceive him as a freak. He also has an unhealthy fascination with TV chat show megastar Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro), who basically has the ability to make or break someone’s career or in this instance Arthur’s dreams and life.
What’s interesting about Fleck as you follow the narrative completely from his perspective. You never know what is completely real or not. Society’s discrimination against him is real, but his delusions may not be. His mother doesn’t help either as her infatuation with Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) feeds fuel to Arthur’s fire that even further contorts his mind.
Things start to spiral dramatically out of control for Arthur when he kills three Wall Street yuppie scumbags in an act of self-defence, but it gains huge exposure because of the social status of its three victims. For the first time ever there’s a shift in Arthur’s confidence, for the first time the world is beginning to notice him, he no longer has to be a victim.
The story builds towards a unbelievable climax whereas he comes face to face with his idol in front of the entire world, only now he won’t be the naive and socially awkward Arthur; here now begins his transformation into the titular character.
There’s so many beautiful scenes in Joker it would be hard to list them all. There’s gorgeous, subtle moments were Phoenix cracks and bends his body like a contortionist against an absolutely haunting score by Hildur Guonadottir. There’s scenes between Arthur, Thomas and Bruce Wayne that I never thought would work, but they did beautifully.
The attention to detail and vibe of the film, plus cinematography by Lawrence Sher is quite astounding. A 70s/80s style colour palette that resembles films like Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy and Death Wish. In fact the movie has that nostalgia feel that it easily could’ve been made 30 years ago.
Plot-wise the film is a fusion of the films I’ve mentioned above with a sprinkle of A Clockwork Orange and The Man Who Laughs. The message is loud and clear of how our society treats vulnerable people and how it’s a huge contributing factor towards their behaviours. The message was spoken about in these movies 30 to 40 years back, but it’s spoken even louder nowadays, it’s a warning!
The thing that impressed me most about the movie was how it’s created an intentional cultural debate. Regardless of if you like the film or not, there’s no getting away from the fact that it raises so many questions from all sides. I can’t remember another comic book movie doing that! This has truly broken through a completely different barrier, opened a floodgate and set the bar extremely high.
I’ve said it beforehand, I don’t normally score movies as I find it a pointless exercise, but if I had to this would receive a 10/10. It’s a film that demands multiple viewings and I haven’t seen any performance so far this year that comes close to Joaquin Phoenix. Amazing.