Todd Phillips' Joker is a cold and dark reflection on one of the most iconic broken characters of all-time, played with unhinged menace by Joaquin Phoenix. Phillips and Scott Silver's script occasionally dips its toes into the deep end, but mostly sticks to surface-level anarchy, creating for an unstable masterpiece, that's beautifully-shot and hauntingly-scored.
The Hangover trilogy director Todd Phillips puts on a happy face and a dark sense of humor for his latest endeavor — Joker, a disturbing and bleak look at one of DC’s most popular characters. Joker borrows much from both The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver as it boils a down-and-out man into complete insanity. Phillips’ script might not be perfect, but the rest of his efforts behind the lens must be celebrated as he’s managed to shoot a film that’s damn near perfect on a visual and audio level — Joker looks like every single penny of its production budget was put to good use, while its musical score is one that will surely haunt you for weeks.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a troubled loner that lives with his mom and works as a happy clown. The world around him is slowly self-destructing, with people disregarding human decency almost as bad as the “super rats” that are eating from the never-ending piles of trash in the streets as the city cuts funds to its city and social workers.
New York is sharply separating the haves from the have-nots and Arthur is one broken sign away from absolutely snapping. The only things keeping him afloat are his loving mother and his dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian, aggressively watching The Murray Franklin Show, hosted by comedic wise guy Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur longs for attention and for affection and acceptance from those around him.
But what happens when you break an already broken man?
There’s no hiding the fact that Joaquin Phoenix gives a menacing and complex performance as Arthur Fleck aka The Joker. In the hands of anyone else, this movie would’ve collapsed on a performance that wasn’t Oscar-worthy and downright frightening. Phoenix gives Fleck a subdued performance that’s occasionally charming, but mostly just screaming for attention — Fleck’s cry for help is received as pathetic and that’s precisely why he snaps and shakes his head and fists towards society and the privileged upper-class.
I refuse to make comparisons to previous Joker performances, because I truly think that Joaquin Phoenix has given us something special and something unlike everyone before him. This Joker is grounded in reality and rooted in pain and the film’s ability to shed more light on the character gives him an unfair advantage when compared to the greats (and Jared Leto) that have came before him. I’m not saying that this is the definitive Joker performance, but it’s yet another captivating, yet uniquely different take on the classic character.
The rest of the film succeeds because of Todd Phillips‘ direction and Hildur Guðnadóttir‘s musical score. Props must also be given to cinematographer Lawrence Sher — these three components when combined with Phoenix’s performance turn Joker into something truly special, a film that transcends the comic book formula/expectation to give us something that’s unafraid to be bleak or depressing, yet something that isn’t riding the “grim dark” train for the sake of it. This movie has so much to say and it’s only crime is that it doesn’t say enough.
I’ve never considered Todd Phillips to be a visual director that picks his shots or tries to convey emotion or story through the lens. Phillips is from a comedic background, which means that most of his films have worked because of what was said and who was saying said content, yet here Phillips sinks his teeth into the atmosphere of the world that he has created and he presents us with something that feels lived in and authentic.
The musical score compliments each and every shot as Phoenix descends into madness and embraces his “funny” side.
The film’s biggest struggle is its script, which Phillips co-wrote with Scott Silver. There’s so much complicated material on display, yet the two more-often-than-not decide to stick to the safe route and cover the surface-layer implications. Joker has the look and feel and performances that are all trying so hard to burst through to the audience, yet it gets lost trying to reflect on society’s short-comings, while almost glorifying a complete psychopath.
I don’t feel that Phillips and company intended to make Joker a likable guy or even a decent human being, because Fleck does some seriously detestable things that makes him nothing more than human garbage — misunderstood, abused, troubled and deserving of help, but still complete garbage because of his actions. Fleck starts out the film with promise and hope for change and rehabilitation, but he quickly feeds into hate and darkness.
And I think when the film focuses on that, it excels and becomes something ugly and true and something that you don’t want to hear or see, yet you can’t look away, because there is a cold slice of reality tucked into this heightened film.
I just wish that the point didn’t have to be beaten over our heads without ever really exploring the nature of all this rage. I see clear as day why Arthur Fleck became the Joker, yet I still felt short-changed as he snaps like a deck of cards when the plot needed to advance and start wrapping things up.
It’s hard to deny the skill on display and the film’s ability to land on its feet, despite its minor missteps. I think those crying about this film being too dark or not what the world needs should probably just skip this one altogether — sometimes bad things happen to good people and sometimes good people turn bad. This isn’t a fantasy, but a reflection of life and the people that live in this world. Is cinema not at its best when it’s challenging us?
I don’t feel that Joker is purposely sending a negative message and instead feel that it’s an artistic expression that could have probably handled the material a little better, but mostly delivers on the premise. Joker isn’t an easy watch or an enjoyable one, but it’s a damn impressive feature from the guy that did Old School and Due Date and it has reminded me to never judge a book by it’s cover or give a clown a pistol.