Joker – Movie Review – A phenomenal character study.

The Joker is the most iconic comic book villain of all time. The character happens to be my favourite fictional character as well. When news broke of a film being developed that would be centred solely around him, many were skeptical including myself. Todd Phillips is mainly known for his comedies (The Hangover Trilogy, Due Date & Old School) so when he was named as the director it was a surprise to say the least. Then one of the best actors of his generation, Joaquin Phoenix entered the fray. Suddenly the enormous potential of this project was visible to see. So after a couple years of waiting and months of controversy, How is Joker?

This story follows a man named Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) who after a series of events, finds himself spiralling into a descent of madness.

First and foremost, Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely phenomenal. This film is an intricate character study. A lot rests on his shoulders and he is a driving force that elevates the material off the page. That being said, what’s on the page is fantastic as well. Todd Phillips and Scott Silver’s script constructs a Gotham that feels completely real and lived in. It’s a bleak setting and Lawrence Sher’s immaculate cinematography conveys this, with a colour palette that is rife with mostly muted colours, and only changes to something more vibrant, once the titular character is born.

The Joker is a character that doesn’t have a defined origin like most villains in comic history. He often appears as an adversary to Batman, with either little or no explanation as to where he emerged from. So one of the toughest challenges this film had, was to provide an origin for The Clown Prince of Crime. What would it take to send an individual off the edge and transform them into the psychopath and orchestrator of chaos, we know as The Joker? It’s that question that has always made me fascinated by him and that’s a large reason why he’s my favourite fictional character.

The answer Todd and Scott provide to that question is extremely complex. It’ll leave you in deep thought and will also test your morality. I haven’t been able to shake this film off my mind since seeing it and I don’t think I’ll be able to for a long time. It’s impactful in so many ways. Whilst I do not condone Arthur’s actions and outbursts of violence, I can absolutely understand what drove his psyche to that sinister point of no return. It puts the viewer in a position where you feel an immense amount of pity for him. In the beginning he carries a level of childlike innocence and a natural desire to make others happy. It immediately made me root for him during his struggles, but as his mind became increasingly fractured, I was constantly asking myself whether I could continue to root for someone, who was slowly evolving into a psychopath.

There isn’t one answer as to why Arthur reaches his inevitable fate. The film provides many and it’s anxiety inducing. The intensity that runs through out the entire film is raw. At times it feels like a horror film and that is because this story is essentially filled with horror, that is amplified by the stark realism in which everything is presented. The third act is a masterful example of how to orchestrate escalating tension. As it got closer and closer to the climax my heart was pounding extremely fast. The entire experience felt like I was watching a ticking time bomb that I knew would eventually detonate, but I was just anxiously waiting for the inevitable.

The film brilliantly holds a mirror up to our world. It may be set in the fictional city of Gotham, but it doesn’t feel all that different from our own reality. Gotham has a fractured society. There’s a class divide that has raised the tension within the city and it’s near boiling point. The arrival of the Joker only threatens to make that tension spill into a manic uprising. Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is at the centre of this class divide and the political undertones of the story. He’s running for Mayor and is very much in favour of the upper class. He sees the less wealthy citizens as nothing but “clowns” who don’t deserve any attention or support. Many parallels from these aspects of the story can be drawn and compared to the society we live in today. It’s alarming how many similarities you can find. Even the lack of mental health support gets addressed within the story, in a manner that should be eye opening to many. The film gives a frightening look into how society can birth a monster.

Back to Phoenix (because I am in no way done with him just yet), it often sounds cliche when you say an actor completely transformed into a role, but I truly mean it when I say Joaquin disappeared. He inhabits every aspect of Arthur, from his frail physicality, right down to the deepest corners of his tormented psyche. From the opening frames I was immediately entranced by his magnetic performance. You simply can’t take your eyes off him. It’s a multi faceted performance that few actors could even come close to pulling off. The unpredictable nature of the performance is an absolute pleasure to witness, he’s rarely in one position within a scene. He’s almost always moving around the environment and engaging with various props in the locations. It’s mesmerising and at times scary, especially during the flawless final forty five minutes. The filmmakers chose to use the pseudobulbar affect (a real life mental disorder that often creates sudden outbursts of uncontrollable laughter) as a way to implement the Joker’s iconic trait of laughter, without making it feel unnatural to the realism of the story. This implementation also allows for it to tie into the films themes of mental illness. The laughs Joaquin is able to conjure up are deeply unsettling. It’s an example of his masterful work in this role. It’s sporadic and uncomfortable, but also slightly comical in certain moments.

There’s so much under the surface of this film, I’d recommend watching it multiple times. There’s a lot to absorb and I found myself analysing the structure of the film even more the second time round. This is one of those rare films where every department is firing on all cylinders. Todd Phillips’ assured direction makes good use of some notable Scorcese influences (Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy), whilst also having an identity of it’s own. Lawrence Sher’s cinematography is beautiful and makes every aspect of the frame flourish, even in the films darkest moments. Hildur Guðnadóttir‘s haunting score is drenched in melancholy and feels like it’s own character. The hair, make up and costume departments also made an important contribution to the overall feel of the film. It’s a truly tremendous collaborative effort, that elevates the film. This is elite filmmaking on every level.

I’ve seen some people mention how the film could’ve explored it’s political subtext deeper. I can understand why someone may think that, but I believe that would’ve negatively impacted the overall story, because it would’ve taken too much attention away from Arthur. This is his story, from his perspective and we are with him through out almost every single scene. To take a bit of time away from him to explore other aspects deeper, would’ve hurt the development of his personal arc.

Joker is a flawless character study that challenges us to ask some important questions about the society we live in. It presents us with a character who is a product of a broken society, who in some ways abandoned him. There’s lessons to be learned from this story, that could help us improve how we treat those who society fails to support, and brands as beneath the average individual.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

(5 Stars out of 5)

– T. Graham.

Joker – Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Brett Cullen, Zazie Beetz and Robert De Niro.

Directed by Todd Phillips.

Now showing in cinemas.

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