I don’t know if there has been such a hype around a film with added polarisation to boot. Todd Phillips’ origin take on iconic villain in Joker shows how Arthur Fleck, a failed stand-up crippled with mental illness who rebels against a system that seems rigged and only rewards those born into riches and fortune. Arthur struggles to navigate his way in Gotham City which has gradually become more violent as the rich continue to cut public funding. I previously did a Top 5 Joaquin Phoenix performances post which you can read here in anticipation for this film. As I predicted, Joker would easily slip into the best of the best from an actor who can’t do any wrong. Joker also won the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival which is unheard of for a franchise superhero film because of its groundbreaking venture and reluctance to fit in with a particular aesthetic that audiences and critics are used to.
Todd Phillips shows his talent for direction with this film. Taking inspiration from some of the best directors in history, mainly Martin Scorsese, Phillips achieves in making an epic based not on a superhero franchise but on a character. This film is rich in character development that it would weirdly fit in with the films of Paul Thomas Anderson. It’s refreshing to see someone venture into a different genre of film despite his ridiculous motive. An obvious element to point out would be that the film is told from Arthur’s perspective in contrast to the numerous Batman films that only see the Joker from Bruce Wayne’s point of view. Phillips allows us to not necessarily sympathise Joker’s actions but to understand his view of a city that ignored him for years and stomped on him daily. Phillips throws us into a specific period of his life rather than showing us his life thus far. What we learn about Arthur’s background is varied and unreliable so it becomes hard to grasp Arthur as a person. What we do gain is that he has lead a life that has pulled him in all sorts of uncertainties and directions but when he is dressed as a clown, he feels comfortable behind the guise.
As expected, Joaquin Phoenix is nothing less than extraordinary and this role will almost certainly bring him an abundance of award wins I think. He is arguably the best working actor today. This may be his time to win a long overdue Oscar (he should have won for The Master really) but that’s not to say that it wouldn’t be deserved if he won for this. Arthur Fleck is a deeply complex character. His mental illness leaves him extremely vulnerable as seen in the opening scene when a group of teenagers take his sign and subsequently beat him up, he’s physically malnourished with Phoenix losing 50 pounds for the role. There are so many layers and sides to this character that he becomes increasingly unreliable and the uncertainty in his actions makes for a terrifying experience. There’s no predicting his motives or what he will do next. If I had to draw comparisons from another Joker, it would have to be Jack Nicholson’s particularly in the chat show scenes but that’s only a glimmer as Phoenix has managed to pave a way for his own Joker. Phoenix is an absolute powerhouse of acting and even those who dislike the film have respect for his portrayal. It’s a performance that shows the physical and mental consequence to actions made by those seen as “higher” and “superior” than himself.
As far as other characters go, we have a supporting role led by Robert De Niro who is making a welcome return from a few years of very questionable choices in film as Murray Franklin, Gotham’s most popular talk show host. Arthur idealises this man but what he doesn’t realise is that Murray is a product of the society that threatens to marginalise him further. He broadcasts a portion of Arthur’s failed stand-up routine for the whole of Gotham to see and isolate him further. Arthur appears oblivious to Murray’s behaviour initially and eagerly accepts and invitation to be on his show in which he is ridiculed further but Arthur isn’t as vulnerable as it seems and his appearance on the show makes for one of the most intense scenes in film this year. I hope De Niro keeps this up and with The Irishman coming out later this year, I am hoping this marks a return to the actor that we loved before Dirty Grandpa.
My favourite scene would have to be the Bathroom Dance scene in which Joker finds his way to a grimy public bathroom and dances with himself. The combination of Phoenix’s whimsical nature and the dark, vibrant score that provides an undertone for what had occurred in the previous scene. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s award-winning score for Joker was one of my major highlights aside from Phoenix. It feels that the score and the character are connected as the score weaves its way through Arthur’s movement. In this scene, the two are combined as one and it is as if this is the music in his mind. If any scene could be used to sum up the film, it’s this one. The Joker is known for his violent outbursts but this scene sees him literally celebrating a triple murder. It’s a different side that we see for a character who had thus far been victimised and pushed down.
I was excited for Joker since I am a huge Joaquin Phoenix fan but, to be honest, the hype surrounding the film made me less and less excited and I was unsure whether I would enjoy. However, I was not let down and thoroughly enjoyed the film from beginning to end. As someone who has experience with mental illness, it was refreshing to see mental illness portrayed in a way that seemed unfiltered and honest. Of course, the character of Arthur Fleck isn’t one to aspire to but the film shows a picture of how those less fortunate are left to fend for themselves when thrown into difficult situations. Joker is a film that lends itself well to the DC franchise but also as a standalone in its own right. It’s depiction of a broken character who becomes even more fragmented is unafraid and undoubtedly a reflection of society today. The film feels progressive and risky while also remaining loyal to a character that has been well-loved for decades.