“Joker” is a psychological crime drama (which is setting up to be one of 2019’s more controversial movies) that follows Arthur Fleck, a lonely outcast and failing stand up comic who slowly descends into madness.
I walked out of this film feeling pleasantly surprised. I, along with many people I’m sure, were extremely skeptical about the idea of showing the backstory of The Joker. This is a notorious character, not only for his crimes, but also for never having a defined backstory. Despite this, the film was an unexpectedly deep, grotesque, and haunting study of a man pushed to his breaking point by a cruel and unforgiving society. “Joker”, despite being one among many comic book films to come out in recent years, still manages to find a way to separate itself from the crowd.
Right off the bat, the performances in this movie are absolutely amazing. Joaquin Phoenix goes above and beyond for his performance as Arthur Fleck. It’s a performance that grabs you by the shoulders and demands your utmost attention at every second. He is absolutely horrifying, but he is absolutely impossible to look away from. The role of The Joker has always been a very intriguing role to watch, as there have been many different takes on the character. From Ceasar Romero’s silly prankster, to Jack Nicholson’s crime boss, to Heath Ledger’s domestic terrorist, to just whatever Jared Leto was trying to do with his take. Phoenix’s take seems to be taking a more human approach to the character. He isn’t some larger than life, psycho criminal. He’s just a guy that has been pushed too far.
Frances Conroy’s performance as Penny Fleck, Arthur’s sickly mother, was another standout. She brought an immense sense of vulnerability to the role, which helped emphasize the dire situation of the Fleck family. Robert De Niro’s performance is also incredibly memorable. While his character, talk show host Murray Franklin, is vital to the plot, he wasn’t exactly the star of the show. With the minimal amount of time he has on screen, De Niro still manages to put out a solid performance.
The score, by HBO’s “Chernobyl” composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, is beautifully dreadful. A wonderful set of strings take center stage here, specifically a powerfully atmospheric cello. It manages to elegantly mix the tragedy of Fleck’s life, with the horror of his actions using only what seems to be strings and percussion. The minimalist approach she takes perfectly mirrors the film’s subdued nature.
The cinematography is also top notch. Though it was shot digitally, the wide palette of deep colors paired with an overall grungy aesthetic are reminiscent of the movies shot on film in the mid to late 70s. It’s also used as a perfect vehicle for the audience to really delve deep into Arthur Fleck’s emotions. Fleck’s feelings of constant isolation are stressed further by the film’s literal isolation of him from the rest of society through the framing of the film. To add, this was the first time when I saw the use of shaky cam that actually came across… pretty good. In most films, shaky cam seems to be used in order to really “amp up the intensity.” This usually results in scenes where it’s entirely too hard to decipher what’s even going on in the film. However, “Joker” already has its fair share of intensity. The shaky cam shots were subtle, and gave the film a more grounded and documentary-like vibe.
One gripe that I had with the movie was the apparent lack of any original style. Todd Phillips has previously stated that “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy” are two films in which “Joker”’ is heavily inspired by. If you have seen either film, you already have a pretty good gist of where things are going. To say “Joker” lifts heavily from both films would be an understatement.
Arthur has the same feelings of disdain towards society and violent tendencies as Travis Bickle of “Taxi Driver”, and the same ambitions and overall awkwardness of Rupert Pupkin of “King of Comedy.” The only real “twist” to any of the ideas brought up in “Taxi Driver” or “King of Comedy” is that it takes place in the Batman canon. Not to say that either of these are bad films. In fact, they are quite good. I was just left kind of disappointed that Phillips just went for an impression of Scorcese, and didn’t really try to go beyond the “influence” of these two films.
In all, “Joker” was a well-rounded observation of a mentally ill man left ignored by society. Joaquin Phoenix really gives a hypnotizing performance as the “Clown Prince of Crime.” The score and cinematography magnificently conveys the film’s unsettlingly tragic tone. However, it’s “homages” to early Scorcese films often crosses the line to straight plagiarism. Despite this, “Joker” remains a wonderfully dark and thought-provoking film.