The press running up to the release of Joker has been plagued with two stories. One is critical acclaim from festivals and reviews alike, claiming it to be the greatest film of the year. The other story is the fear that the film actively promotes violence, anti-social behaviour, toxic masculinity and sympathises with the criminally insane. Thankfully, only one of these is correct. It is the greatest film of the year.
Todd Phillips, known for creating the Hangover Trilogy, visited Warner Bros in 2016 and said he had an idea for a dark re-telling of the Joker’s origin story. He had been interested for a while in creating a low budget character study about a character’s decent into madness, and soon began to connect the dots in tying this theme to Batman’s greatest villain. Three years later, and the result is 2019’s greatest comic-book film and a truly masterful piece of filmmaking.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill stand-up comedian wannabe who has been disregarded from society. A sufferer of pathological laughter, he lives with his mother and has delusions of grandeur. To prepare for the role, Phoenix did not read any source material or comic books. Instead he researched political assassinations and their perpetrators, so he could better understand killers and their motivations.
It should be said at this point that Phoenix gives a stunning performance that holds not only a candle, but an entire chandelier, to Heath Ledger. Oscar-worthy doesn’t begin to describe the depth and emotion he displays as he explores a deeply troubled and utterly unredeemable character. Losing 24kg for the role displays his commitment to the project, and his unbelievable intensity to the character throughout the film is truly awe-inspiring.
Additional cast members include Robert DeNiro as Murray Franklin, the David Letterman of Gotham City’s Late Night Talk Show scene; Zazie Beetz as a single mother and Arthur’s love interest; and Frances Conroy as Penny Fleck, Arthur’s mother. The film, set in the Batman universe, also has several characters alluding to this world, though I won’t reveal them.
The story features many twists and turns while all unraveling from Arthur’s point of view. The twists are shocking and create an unpredictable mood which slowly unravels as the true intentions of the movie become clear. The beautiful cinematography by Lawrence Sher gives a retro glow to the 1980’s set thriller, and a cello heavy score by Hildur Guðnadóttir gives the film a deeply unsettling tone. Additionally, the production designers have done a stunning job in creating a tactile rendition of 1980’s Gotham.
Throughout the film, we are shown many violent acts, starting with Arthur being beaten up by a group of young hooligans. The film, while sympathetic to the violence, is never sympathetic to those who are inflicting it. The tone of this film is incredibly brave in that it does place Joker on a pedestal and asks the audience to truly invest in his emotional journey as he becomes a murderous psychopath. Crucially though, it never says he is right and it never glorifies any of his actions, and this was the best decision. Todd Phillips has created a movie that tight-ropes precariously on the anti-social line, but he manages to walk it confidently without so much as a wobble.
You’ll say it’s ironic considering I’ve just written a review on it, but I’m truly lost for words on how great Joker is. It’s subversive, it’s brave and daring, and offers the most original comic book film since Spider-Verse. Phoenix should be showered with awards, and so too should Todd Phillips for his stunning vision that debuts a new breed of comic-book movies.