I’m not going to mince words with you: Joaquin Phoenix deserves an Oscar and Joker is an amazing film.
The origin of the Clown Prince of Crime has always been a bit of a mystery, the lack of knowledge of who he is and where he comes from making him that much tougher to beat. But writer/director Todd Phillips, known for The Hangover, takes a stab at telling the story of how The Joker came to be, a very ambitious task. This swing for the fences was risky, but Phillips pushed and worked hard for his vision, and hit a homerun.
Everyone remembers Heath Ledger’s version of The Joker in The Dark Knight, which won him best supporting actor and is one of the greatest antagonist performances ever on the big screen, and what I saw Phoenix do, reminded me of what I saw Ledger do, and what I saw Nicholson do in the 80s, and that is tear down the character as we thought we knew him and build him back up their own. Nicholson’s Joker is his own, Ledger’s Joker was his own, and Phoenix owns his Joker more than anyone’s ever owned something before; it’s not about being the best, but about portraying the criminal mastermind in a fresh and exciting way whilst remaining true to the character, and Phoenix accomplishes just that.
Part of what lends individuality to this Joker, is that for once, he is given the protagonist spotlight instead of filling the role as antagonist. The lack of Batman’s presence, and the fact that for most of the film he is Arthur Fleck, not Joker, allows the film to become a character study about someone who is chewed up by Gotham and spit back out, only to come back with a vengeance. Joker is still an evil psychopath no doubt, but the film also gives him something we’re not used to seeing the character having, humanity. And this all works because of the film’s lead actor, Joaquin Phoenix and his dedication to perfecting his craft. It is the painful physicality, in his laugh, in his run, in his half-nude dancing, in his forced smiles, that the abuse he’s suffered becomes so clear and real, that we suffer with him. And when he transforms into Joker, he captures the essence of unpredictability and chaos the character is known for perfectly; his rage and passion light the screen on fire.
Joker is steadily paced, taking time to develop its protagonist down to the last detail, only to unleash him onto the world in an explosive climax that had my heart racing. We follow Arthur step-by-step, watching him as a clown-for-hire who twirls signs and dances at children’s hospitals, as an aspiring stand-up comedian, who is mercilessly beaten, lives with and takes care of his sick mother, and most of all, struggles with his condition of uncontrollable laughter, with other surprises along the way; the film likes to keep you always guessing. But back to the point, we become so engrossed in Arthur’s life, that we catch him at his most vulnerable and sympathetic, and despite our knowledge of the inevitable direction his story goes, we care for him. Phillips takes our twisted interest in the arch nemesis, uproots it, and uses it as a platform to say F U at the system which has long favored the corrupt and elite, stripped people like Arthur of joy, ridiculed mental illness, and has censored what we can and cannot say. Phillips’ background in comedy makes his unabashed message make all too much sense. He also adds a dark sense of humor to the film, effortlessly blending with the rest of the script, which I enjoyed.
This is also one of the most interestingly shot comic book films I’ve seen; cinematographer Lawrence Sher uses color and lighting to his advantage to depict Gotham as this bleak and gloomy place save a few bright spots. There is graffiti on the bus, on the subway, on the street walls, trash piled on the sidewalks, and the film contrasts these features of Arthur’s environment to the glitzy theater halls and Wayne Manor as examples of the film’s theme of polarization. The score is also a menace, always hinting that there is something dark brewing in Arthur’s mind waiting to break free.
When I read some critic’s reviews, I become less and less certain we watched the same movie. But that is what film criticism is all about, subjectivity. Sometimes you’ve got to be a cynic. Joker continues the trend of strong, R-rated comic book films. This film rattled me, and I loved it. 9.5/10