This movie is a lot to digest. In a sudden evolution of the comic book genre, Joker is the furthest thing from a comic book movie, sharing only the name of the titular character with the comics.
Todd Phillips, director of The Hangover (2009), has crafted a story and directed a film that is immaculate across all departments. The story, which is a total departure from all comics, is a dark and gritty character study of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man struggling to find his place and purpose in Gotham City’s broken society.
Almost every second spent watching this film you are focusing solely on the character of Arthur Fleck. There isn’t a single minute of the film where you don’t see Arthur or you don’t feel his presence looming over what is happening. Every moment is dedicated to breaking down this man; who he is, what he’s thinking, what he’s feeling and how/why he reacts. It’s a deep and dark character study, exploring this man’s downfall and decent into madness as he tries to make a life for himself in this unforgiving world. It really puts you in the mind of this guy, and you feel everything he feels to the point where some, all or most of his reactions are somewhat understandable even though you may not be able to defend them.
This journey is riveting, from beginning to end it locks you in and takes you on a ride with so many sudden turns you won’t know where things are going until they get there. It makes for a journey that, despite being dark, unpleasant and unsettling, calls to be rewatched and re-experienced due to the strength of the payoff. Some may be displeased by the pace of the film as it takes its time to get to where it’s going, but at no time does it feel slow. It takes its time to peel back the layers of this man and lets you sit with certain moments to really understand him. Todd Phillips’ writing here is incredible, but not as incredible as the lead performance.
Joaquin Phoenix, one of the most celebrated character actors in Hollywood, is known for the time, effort and dedication he puts into his performances. Whenever you see his name on a poster you know his performance is going to be nothing short of spectacular. That is no different here. There is already talk of this man being nominated for his performance in Joker, not only do I think he will be nominated, but there is a very strong and probable chance he wins. This man completely disappears into the role and becomes Arthur Fleck in every way, shape and form. The amount of weight he lost for the role, the way he moves on screen, the mannerisms he applies to the character; everything he does in this film crafts a perfect and haunting look into this guy’s mind.
Right down to what is now an infamous laugh, he completely embodies the character and makes the Joker his own in a way that has never been done before. Let’s go into that laugh, which Joaquin perfects to the point of it sending genuine chills down your spine every time he lets loose. The laugh becomes a part of his character in a way that is unique to this story and adds another layer to the Joker that is very clever. Everything about his performance is riveting and some of the best acting work of his illustrious career.
Despite almost every frame focusing on Joaquin, there are other performances in here that do make an impact. Notably, Robert De Niro plays talk show host Murray Franklin, Frances Conroy plays Arthur’s mother Penny and Zazie Beetz plays Arthur’s neighbour Sophie and the three of them have some great memorable scenes alongside Joaquin. They don’t have a tonne of screen time because, as I mentioned, Joaquin is in 99% of the film, but they make an impact whenever they do appear.
It’s beautifully shot and framed throughout to really give it that ‘Scorsese feel’ that is very prominent in the overall tone of the film. One of the biggest standouts though, is the score from composer Hildur Guðnadóttir which is the best score to hit the big screen this year. It really is a character in itself as every time it kicks in it’s the first thing you notice alongside Joaquin’s performance. If there’s anything else this should get a surefire Oscar nomination for, it’s this score, the work Hildur has done here, and in Chernobyl earlier in the year, is phenomenal and should put her on the map as a composer to really look out for.
If you said the director of The Hangover would be helming a Joker film I’d have been very confused… and I was… but Todd Phillips proves he’s the right man for the job and that when he has a vision, he delivers. This entire film is a unified experience. Every little detail in here is integrated to give a more thorough exploration of this character, this person, who becomes dangerously unhinged through his experiences in Gotham city.
I didn’t know if I was going to walk out having loved Joker or having been disappointed, but with Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, Todd Phillips’ directing and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score, I loved every minute of this experience. It’s thrilling from beginning to end and will have you hooked in to this dark and gritty character study as it unravels everything about what makes this man tick. It’s definitely not the most uplifting movie out there… not in the slightest… but it does have a moment or two of humour that is a nice glimmer of hope in what is a very bleak city. This is a must-watch for anyone who wants a deep and intense character study of the Joker without all the comic-book influence.