I’ve never left the cinema more unnerved than I did after watching Todd Phillips’ first foray in the superhero genre. Joker is a frequently violent, often grotesque and regularly intense portrayal of the iconic character that’s already receiving praise and backlash in equal measure from those in the critic community.
With development originally beginning way back in 2016, Joaquin Phoenix walking out of interviews and the press junket being cancelled altogether, it’s safe to say that the path to release has not been easy, but what’s the finished product like?
Forever alone in a crowd, failed comedian Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) seeks connection as he walks the streets of Gotham City. Arthur wears two masks, the one he paints for his day job as a clown, and the guise he projects in a futile attempt to feel like he’s part of the world around him. Isolated, bullied and disregarded by society, Fleck begins a slow descent into madness as he transforms into the criminal mastermind known as the Joker.
Director of The Hangover trilogy, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Phillips is an odd choice to helm a picture like this, but his darkly comedic roots shine through in Joker and add a much-needed lightness of touch over the course of the running time. Without these pockets of humour, Joker would just be far too murky, more so than it already is.
Phoenix is absolutely astounding and his physical transformation defies words. Alongside Heath Ledger, these two very different portrayals of this iconic character are fully deserving of as much recognition as possible. Arguably however, Phoenix delivers the best iteration yet and one that perhaps needed even more commitment – this is a two-hour film dedicated to the character, whereas the Joker has always been a supporting part of previous films.
From the frame devoid of any muscle, dark circles under his eyes and wrinkles etched on his face, Phoenix’s dedication to this role is on another level to anything we have seen before. As his transformation from troubled Arthur Fleck to criminal mastermind gets underway, this only serves to highlight the acting prowess of this incredible performer. Elsewhere, supporting cast members like Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy and Zazie Beets are also wonderful in their roles of varying screen-time, but as Joker is a film about the singular character, they stay in the background, and rightly so.
The script too is exceptionally written. Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver, who also wrote 8 Mile, deliver a tightly wound screenplay that is at times just too tense for its own good. This is never a film you can sit back and relax to, it feels like you’re on the edge of your seat for the full two hours. The comedic notes that I alluded to earlier nicely round off some of the sharp edges however, but make no mistake, this is a brutal and unforgiving film.
The comedic notes… nicely round off some of the sharp edges
Criticism has been levelled already about the significance this film may have on those who already actively promote the character’s actions, and it’s easy to see why people are concerned. However, as an art form, Joker doesn’t need to be processed in such a way. Yes, it’s brutal, yes, it’s bloody and yes it sometimes hits too close to home about the issues we face in the real world, but cinema is escapism and that’s what it offers.
To look at it’s clear that the very modest of budget of $55million has been put to good use. The city of Gotham feels dirty, grimy and about to erupt and this is exactly how we as the audience want it to be. The uprising is coming and with each grimace from Phoenix’s face, we get closer and closer to that critical moment.
For me that critical moment occurs a little too late into the film and with not a lot of time left after this point, Joker tries to wrap up its loose ends too quickly, but this is a miniscule criticism in a deeply impressive and immersive cinema experience.
The score too is excellent. Icelandic composer Hildur Ingveldardóttir Guðnadóttir has worked on films like The Revenant and Sicario 2 and that gritty realism she brought to those films has been replicated here. It’s a soaring orchestral score populated with some sharp string solos that work perfectly with the character.
Overall, Joker is a masterpiece. Phoenix’s performance is one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing in the cinema and to go alongside that commitment the audience is treated to an engrossing script and beautiful score. Where DC has failed in the past is in forgetting to carve their own niche. Marvel has the 12A game all sewn up and there’s no point in competing there. Joker is the direction that should have been taken from the very beginning and it’s one of the best films I’ve seen in years.
Brutal? Yes. Beautiful? Absolutely.