It seems as though films that get me genuinely excited have been fewer and farther between. There have been many films that catch me by surprise and really leave an impression but very few of the films I most look forward to actually sate my anticipation, so it’s especially sublime when one of them actually leaves me wanting a second viewing. Joker is exactly that rare blend of high-end filmmaking skills, dynamic performance, and narrative context that leaves an indelible mark.
With such a fervent and fanatical fan base firmly in place, this was a risky project for Todd Phillips. It signaled a hard turn for writer/director who really rose to prominence on the back of the Hangover trilogy. Sure, those were dark-ish, adult-oriented comedies but the tone was always fairly light and that’s definitely not the case this time out. Joker is a psychologically heavy film, wrapped in intense emotion and mental instability but that’s what makes it so damn good. Intentional or not, the story is very much an allegorical take on the class structure in America, particularly the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots, and how alarmingly unequipped we are to deal with a growing mental health crisis. Working alongside Scott Silver, the pair crafted a very insightful story about a man at the very bottom of the societal totem pole as he struggles to find his way in life. He’s also dealing with serious mental health issues and having a hard time getting any help. The screenplay is meticulous in its approach and the sharp dialogue unravels the lead character down to his very core. It’s easy to see the Scorcese influence and the film carries a substantial gravity as a result but it’s not without its own twisted sense of humor as well. While gauging when to laugh may be different for every individual, there is no hiding the substantial inner turmoil that fuels this story. It’s truly a beautiful, albeit sad and troubling, portrait. While controversy began to spring up before the film even officially released, this is easily in the Top-5 films this year and deserves to be in the running for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.
This stand-alone origin story was an incredibly well-made film from top to bottom, so much so it could exist and be successful outside the DC Extended Universe. However, this does take place under the umbrella of the Warner Bros’ Batman film franchise and comparisons to iterations of Jokers past are both expected and unavoidable…especially with a character as iconic as this one. From Cesar Romero to Jared Leto, each actor that has taken up the mantle has brought some individual nuance to the role…some unique panache that’s made the character their own. Arguments over whose performance was better or worse can be found in any direction but it all comes down to personal preference anyway, so let’s just forget about that for now. Joaquin Phoenix was fucking fantastic! Vivid and guttural, he’s frighteningly unstable but still brought a level of humanity to the character that we haven’t seen on the screen before. Where he falls on someone’s personal rankings isn’t really relevant to this depiction and that’s a big part of what makes it so captivating. It was his to invent, without the trappings of a larger plan in place. This role was solely about Arthur Fleck and the downward spiral that eventually led this man to become the Joker.
Beyond the foundation for the character, it was a surprisingly physical role but not in the sense of fight scenes or stunts. Phoenix lost a substantial amount of weight (50lbs or so) in order to transform his body and, I don’t want to go into too much detail in case you haven’t seen it, that physical frailty is at the forefront of Fleck’s experience in the world. It was an exquisitely chaotic performance that resonated powerfully as a cautionary tale and is surprisingly present despite taking place during the onset of the 1980s. Phoenix is very clearly the front runner for Best Actor this year as the three-time Oscar nominee followed up a strong and active 2018 with what just might be his career-defining performance.
As good as he was, the performance was enhanced and enriched by incredibly high-quality filmmaking across the board. The cinematography by Lawrence Sher is intoxicating and the IMAX camera was an excellent tool to help tell this story. Intense close-ups stand out to a much higher degree and the significantly larger frame captures much more of Mark Friedberg’s incredible production design which was inspired by iconic 1970s era films like Taxi Driver and One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. The wardrobe by Mark Bridges and set decoration, especially in Arthur’s apartment, by Kris Moran added those important layers of subtle authenticity that contribute to great films. Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s original music is both haunting and captivating, completely loaded with tension in heavy string sounds. You can really feel something bad is on the way and that feeling mounts throughout the two-hour runtime. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Academy Awards nominations in at least one, if not all, of these categories as well.
While this was definitely a singular character study, having Robert DeNiro in a supporting role was obviously a huge shot in the arm. He plays an important role as Murray Franklin, a Johnny Carson type used to define the era and provide background context, but he’s not as directly involved as you might think. DeNiro is always a strong performer and he certainly got the most out of Phoenix in their scenes together. Frances Conroy gave a good performance as Arthur’s troubled mother, Penny, but their relationship is a central element to the plot so I won’t go into detail. Zazie Beetz rounded out the primary cast as Sophie, one of Arthur’s neighbors, but you can also catch cameos by comedians Bryan Callen and Marc Maron. The supporting cast was no disappointment but there’s no question the film belonged to its leading man.
The controversy surrounding the film stems from critics claiming that it could inspire violence but, if that’s your takeaway, I think you missed the point. While he may not be the “villain” just yet, the Joker is certainly not the hero. His gradual turn is prefaced by a lack of access to mental health services and increasing uncertainty about what’s true. Providing context for behavior is important and, yes, the character is mostly sympathetic for a number of reasons but only up until the point he’s not. Then it’s the audience’s job to decide that moment for themselves. Clearly the debate didn’t hurt the hype. Going into its second weekend, Joker approaches $300-million globally on the back of the highest October opening of all time.
Recommendation: Obviously, hardcore fans have probably seen it already. Go see it again, I’m going to. If you’re not one of those people, see it for yourself and you can be the judge.