Intrigued by the initial character teaser dropped several months ago, “Joker” has had my attention since it was announced that Joaquin Phoenix would be donning the iconic makeup and smile. From films like “Her” and “You Were Never Really Here,” Phoenix brings his extreme method acting to a psychological crime thriller based on the DC Comics character. Leading up to its release, the two trailers that dropped were packed with striking imagery. This left me hopeful the film would turn out to be good, but I was cautious given DC’s track record of quality. This, in combination with Todd Phillips (“The Hangover Trilogy,” “War Dogs”) directing, someone with experience mostly in comedy films, set the stage for a movie that could either succeed spectacularly or flop hard. After seeing the film, I can say that “Joker” defies all the conventions that superhero movies have laid out, and provides a complete package that stands on its own as a surreal and emotional experience that is destined to stick with its viewers.
No doubt, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance carries the entire film, allowing him to shine as he develops the character of Arthur Fleck into his clown-inspired alter ego. Rather than falling into a vat of toxic waste, like in the comics, Arthur is a deeply disturbed individual that turns to violence after he is beaten down by society. His laugh, a key characteristic of the Joker, is written in as a mental condition where he uncontrollably laughs in moments of social anxiety. This proves to be a worthwhile change because instead of laughing maniacally, Arthur chokes back his laughter in pain. In a scene following Arthur in a comedy club, he laughs out of time with the rest of the audience as he takes notes about the jokes told but does not truly understand what makes them funny.
In his deranged laughter and scrawled writing, it becomes immediately apparent that even though Arthur wants to do his best to entertain others, his character is completely detached from social norms. Compared to that of past Joker performances, Phoenix’s portrayal of the character is signature enough that he is able to stand alongside those of Mark Hamill’s and Heath Ledger’s interpretations of the Joker. Phoenix’s performance is downright Oscar-worthy, giving Arthur a downtrodden journey filled with his personal struggles in the twisted world of Gotham City.
Coupled with Phoenix’s center stage performance, other aspects of the film fully round out the dark world of Gotham. The side cast features some solid performances from actors such as Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro and Brett Cullen. As cold and harsh as Gotham City is portrayed to be, the visuals bleed through, putting Arthur in a setting that never feels safe for the audience. Throughout most of the shots of the city, the sun never shines through, leaving the sky a muted green.
Detail is also immaculately portrayed in the visuals of Arthur’s wardrobe compared to that of the background. When Arthur is dressed in his normal attire, his yellow jacket and somber demeanor blend in with the rest of the city. However, once he dons his Joker attire, his red suit pops in each shot, forcing focus on him.
Expertly scored by Hildur Guðnadóttir, the score provides a haunting backdrop to the inside of Arthur’s mind and his reactions to the world around him. In the scenes where Arthur is the most depressed, there is a slow but constant strumming from an orchestra of deep cello and violin tones. When the Joker persona starts to take center stage, these tones only get louder.
Lastly, I should consider if this film is worth recommending. The only criticism I have is that the dialogue of this film is by no means extraordinary, but is still solid enough to unnerve most audiences. While I would not recommend this movie for all audiences, I would definitely say its worth buying a ticket if you appreciate the concept of a descent into madness that this film puts forth. “Joker” is a film that features an outstanding performance by Joaquin Phoenix and is bound to stay in people’s minds when Academy Awards season hits.