Is “Joker” a masterpiece? Will it inspire real world violence? Does it redefine the superhero genre? Well, there are many “yes and no” answers in this review, but “Joker” is most certainly film that needs to be talked about. Directed by Todd Phillips, “Joker” tells the story of Arthur Fleck, played exceptionally well by Joaquin Phoenix.
Arthur is a mentally-troubled citizen in a 1981 Gotham City. Arthur works as a party clown for hire, but the city of Gotham is in no mood for light hearted gags as the city is undergoing a garbage strike. The strike leaves Gotham flooded with garbage and teeming with what the radio in the beginning of the film calls, “super rats.”
Both Arthur and Gotham City are in a destructive symbiotic relationship. As Arthur continues to experience more bad days, Gotham becomes more and more filthy.
What cannot be denied is Phoenix’s flawless performance as Fleck/Joker. Phoenix’s 52-pound weight loss is just scratching the surface into how committed he is to bringing this disturbed character to life. The mannerisms, movement, patterns of speech, and his bone chilling laugh will leave you both disturbed and in awe while watching Phoenix on screen. Phoenix completely transforms into this character where you don’t see the actor; you see the character, Fleck.
“Joker” hinges on its main character and the film could have either succeeded or failed depending on the performance. There have been a multitude of great performances of the clown prince of crime. These great performances include Cesar Romero’s campy yet memorable performance in the popular 1960’s Batman television show, Jack Nicholson’s darker portrayal in the 1989 Batman film, and lastly Heath Ledger’s Oscar Winning performance in “The Dark Knight.”
After Ledger’s performance, many fans, including myself, felt that there was no need for another on screen Joker performance since we had already seen the best one, and the mixed reactions to Jared Leto’s performance in “Suicide Squad” only confirmed that skepticism. So Phoenix had some large shoes to fill, and many can agree that he does honor this beloved comic book villain while still making the role his own.
What separates Phoenix’s performance from the past iterations is that Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck/Joker feels human. Fleck has flaws. Fleck laughs for sure, but there is a great amount of pain, sadness, and anger just brewing beneath the surface. Phoenix is able to illustrate so many layers to this character without having to rely on dialogue, but by showing the audience through his movements and eyes. You’re just captivated that a performance like this even exists.
Cinematographer Lawrence Sher gives audiences a Gotham unlike anything we’ve seen in the past Batman films. The Gotham in “Joker” is not the gothic design from Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman Returns,” not the neon light filtered design in Joel Schumacher’s “Batman and Robin” and “Batman Forever,” nor the realistic Chicago type Gotham in Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy.
In “Joker” we are presented with a Gotham that is straight up a 1970’s New York. However, for the story that is being told the retro type setting works to the film’s strength. Everything feels grounded, using little technology, which leads to scenes not dedicated to CGI-filled, action-packed scenes, but instead scenes are filled with drama and true character development.
The soundtrack done by, Hildur Guðnadóttir fills the scenes with striking chords. Guðnadóttir’s musical resume includes, 2018’s “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” and the recent HBO mini-series’ “Chernobyl.” With a score like that, there was no doubt that the music would bring the intense factor. There is something somber and foreboding; it never feels like the soundtrack is invading the scenes, but instead lingering.
The soundtrack acts as a fly on the wall and increases in volume depending on Fleck’s mood. Guðnadóttir mixes an almost metallic feel in the instruments to illustrate the disgusting underbelly of Gotham.
Joker may initially seem like an odd part of Phillips’ filmography, considering he is most known for his “Hangover” trilogy. But, in 2016 he directed the film, “War Dogs,” which blended drama and comedy.
Phillips is no stranger when it comes to directing drama, it’s just that “Joker” does not rely on comedy, but instead brings a slow burn character study. For the most part the slow pace of the film does not feel like a drag which is due to Phoenix’s performance and Guðnadóttir’s score.
As for the writing, the script written by Phillips and Scott Silver while good has some cracks in the plot. Scott Silver has written quality dramas before, such as 2002’s “8 Mile,” 2010’s “The Fighter.” “Joker’s” script presents a main character who is realistic and believable, but some of the surrounding characters are real head scratchers.
Some characters come off a bit cartoonish. It would not be a complaint if the film was attempting to go for a comic book feel, but the film rarely, if at all, feels like that. So when the background characters begin to chew the scenery it sticks out like a sore thumb.
The film is blatantly rated R. It is adult entertainment. We are not supposed to root for Fleck, but just understand why he is the way he is. Could some of the writing been a bit stronger? Definitely. The film is not asking for us to cheer along as Fleck commits crimes.
To wrap up, Joker is a film where it’s pros definitely outweigh its cons. It’s a film that everyone should see and make up their own judgments. The film is certainly no crowd pleaser and many will walk away from this film feeling disgusted, but it is a film worth giving one viewing.