A movie focused on just The Joker. Another Joker rendition just around three years after Jared Leto gave us another. A Joker movie from the guy behind the Hangover movies. A Joker movie without Batman. A Joker. Movie. Without. Batman. Yes, as the idea first appears on paper, many would be forgiven for throwing eye rolls at Hollywood for a new gritty, arty, socially aware take on the beloved DC villain that promises to take the character where we’ve never seen him before on the big screen. And whattaya know.
Before I continue, allow me to state the punchline: Joker is good. It’s really damn good.
It’s the type of streamline plot that is about what unfolds instead of how. There’s no big concept here; it’s a character study on a character that’s spiraling. As such, I won’t really touch plot points.
We meet Arthur Fleck, a deeeeeply troubled soul with what we can easily assume are a plethora of mental illnesses and issues. He is a man that has long been overlooked by society, discarded by many, left to further internally unravel in a mind that is, not exactly warped, but extremely reactionary to the many shortcomings of a world of chaos and anger. “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t,” reads a sentence in Arthur’s diary, an interesting sign of the self awareness he has, and another sign of the apathetic world around him.
As the marketing and hype machine has already made sure you know, Joaquin Phoenix gets all immersive and transformative as DC’s clown prince of crime. It’s a very impressive performance, gluing audience eyes and ears to his every facial expression, his animalistic body movements, that tragic laugh that will etch its way into your memory. Arthur is a truly pitiful, pathetic figure, and Phoenix’s performance manages to be both repellent and strangely entrancing. Arthur is a walking macabre car accident of a man; you know you shouldn’t stare – you just can’t help it. On the flip side, Phoenix’s ultra in-your-face turn can seem a little heavy-handed on occasion, and there is a reliance on showing off Phoenix’s gangly body, nailing home the actor’s dedication and highlighting the character’s metaphor-fueling physical state again and again.
As striking as Phoenix is in the lead role, Joker is a film with almost all parts on point. Director Todd Phillips, who comes from a background in comedy (The Hangover trilogy, Old School, Road Trip), is confidently swinging with an attention-grabbing piece of cinema. His influences are clear, particularly Martin Scorsese films Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, and he does well to place the sometimes very heavy homaging in the right spots (Quentin Tarantino does that, although he is perhaps much more relentless with his nodding). Attention grabbing is a good way to describe the filmmaking here; everything, from that performance, to Lawrence Sher’s (Godzilla: King of the Monsters) piercing cinematography, to the affecting score by Hildur Guðnadóttir (Chernobyl), everything is calibrated at a level of high intensity. Phillips wants to shake you. Which he does.
Whether or not fans of DC Comics or the Joker will embrace this film will come down to their willingness to have another exploration of the beloved character. There are elements taken from a number of comic imaginings, and despite the creatives and marketing strongly suggesting otherwise, there is clear-cut fan service that could prove to be polarising for some Joker fans. Certain elements really can’t be discussed without spoilers, but suffice it to say that this writer welcomed the angled spins we got in this rendition of Gotham. On the whole, it’s great to have experimental one-offs that allow for left-of-field approaches to characters on the big screen; place this alongside Logan as another fantastic adult-aimed take on a comic book icon.
As for the film’s brutality and the concerns that have arisen among certain groups, further driven by certain media outlets, it comes down to an individual and their taste. A quick rant, if I may. Yes, on occasion this is quite a violent movie, and some moments are truly brutal, but it remains a work of fiction nevertheless. And it’s a movie. To have outrage and high concern for how a film depicts its character and their actions, regardless of the real-world connections one can make (there are many to be made here), can open the door for troubling considerations of censorship. If a film like this is deemed controversial, that’s fine; if a film like this is deemed a problem, so then shall a slew of past, present and future that dare depict killing, anger, social injustice, and the like. Hell, then say goodbye to any form of murder in cinema – murder is a problem in real life, is it not? Ultimately, film is art, and art is inherently open for interpretation.
Joker is a very bleak representation of a mentally ill and unhinged individual, a man who we just happen to know as a very popular comic book villain. Some will no doubt find it off putting; it’s certainly not for everyone. But the clear effort that Phillips, Phoenix and co. have put in has made for a bold, gripping, disturbing, effecting character study that you won’t be forgetting in a hurry.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★☆
‘Joker’ opens in Australian cinemas on October 3 and US cinemas on October 4.