Updated: Oct 25, 2019
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Brett Cullen, Frances Conroy, Zazie Beatz, Glenn Fleshler, Marc Maron, Shea Whigham, Josh Pais, Leigh Gill.
Produced by: DC Films & Village Roadshow Pictures
Written By: Todd Phillips & Scott Silver Directed by: Todd Phillips
Music by: Hildur Guðnadóttir
Review By: Wade Swift
Rating: 4 1/2 X's out of 5 X's
The most iconic character in cinematic history has once again made his way back to the big screen, and unlike his most recent appearance he doesn't disappoint. Now, don't get me wrong, I didn't hate Jared Leto's take on the character, honestly I believe he was just dealt a bad hand and wasn't really given the proper stage this character warrants and deserves. You have to realize, the first two cinematic adaptations of the character were provided by two of the most heralded directors of the last century (Tim Burton & Christopher Nolan) and were portrayed by two of the most gifted actors of their time (Jack Nicholson & Heath Ledger). So for the most part, history will show that Hollywood is particularly judicious when bringing The Joker to the big screen, and this time around is no different. Enlisting the talents of screenwriter/director Todd Phillips (The Hangover, Old School) and actor Joaquim Phoenix (Gladiator, Walk The Line) to bring us by far the coldest and most polarizing adaptation of this storied character. It's also the first time Joker has actually been given his own full length feature film origin story, and as you might expect it's a pretty bleak and brutal take on him and his upbringing.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a working clown and aspiring comedian desperately trying to find his place in a Gotham City riddled with crime, while at the same time taking care of his mentally unstable mother. The film is filled with a tremendous amount of pain and despair and is undoubtedly the most stripped down, minimalistic version of a comic book movie we've seen in quite some time. Like a true character study, Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver do an excellent job taking every nuance and detail of The Joker and breaking it down to the most fundamental and realistic level. Beginning with his infamous laugh, which is brilliantly spun into a medical condition where he impulsively and sporadically laughs uncontrollably, often to the point of a near dry heave. It's important to note that this is in fact a real life medical condition affecting just over two million people in the United States alone called "The Pseudobullbar Effect" or PBA, which is characterized by frequent, involuntary bouts of crying, laughter & other emotional displays which are often exaggerated and completely disconnected from the individuals actual emotional state. It's most commonly caused by brain injuries or neurological disorders that impact how the brain processes emotion.
So again, Phillips and Silver keep this character as grounded and realistic as possible. Which I've said before is something the film industry need now more than ever. In an era of oversaturation, excess, overly star studded casts, superhero superteams not to mention Hollywood's obsession with the use of CGI which has become a gift & curse for filmmakers. Much like Quentin Tarantino did with his recent release (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood) Todd Phillips decides to ignore the status quo and do things the old fashioned way. Keeping with that spirit this film takes place, and draws much inspiration from the 70's/80s era, particularly with one of the most polarizing films of the 1970's Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" starring Robert Deniro. There are many parallels between the two films, to provide context I'm gonna go through a few, because I actually just recently watched it for the first time the night before viewing Joker and it's truthfully one of the most flawless films I've ever seen and I firmly believe if you're a fan of one you'll enjoy the other. The two films are minimalistic and intimate in nature, however vastly obscure with their message and delivery. At their core they each document a man, who's reached a sort of stalemate in life, struggling to find his place in the world, very much afflicted by the harsh realities of the environment around them. Chewed up and spit out by society. Can most often be found in their apartment, alone, with nothing to keep them company but their internal monologues and a diary for their thoughts, and of course both movies feature the one and only Robert Deniro.
This film, like it's lead character is rooted in paradox. At a certain point it becomes almost completely unclear what is real and what is another one of Arthur Fleck's delusions. The connection between Arthur Fleck/His Mother and Thomas Wayne is absolutely brilliant, and gives any fan of Batman and the DCU almost a bit of closure and really provides [Finally] a linear motive behind the jokers violence and hostility towards Thomas Wayne and his deeply rooted obsession with Bruce Wayne. The beauty in this however is Phillips leaves you wondering whether this connection is actually even real or not, almost furthering the Jokers infamous ambiguity. The Pace is nearly flawless, there's just the right amount of character development to reel you in and enough twists and easter eggs around every corner to keep you engaged. The greatest twist of all being (Are you ready) that none of it may have happened at all. If you remember back to the beginning of the film when Arthurs meeting with his social worker, she references his stay at Arkham asylum, which then cuts to a flashback of Arthur banging his head on the door of his padded room in the mental institution. Fast forward to the end of the film and he's back in Arkham, leaving the viewer to wonder if he was returning after causing so much chaos and havoc to the city, or if he'd never left and everything we witness is just another figment of his delusional psychosis. An argument could be made for either as the narration and the film itself walks a very thin line between objective reality and subjective perception. Another sign that this may have all been just another one of Jokers fantasies is the demeanor and overall depiction of one Thomas Wayne. Throughout the history of the DCU Thomas Wayne has always been portrayed as an outstanding, upstanding citizen, a philanthropist, a man of the people who wants to help the people, who's empathetic to "the little guy". None of these characteristics are represented in this film. Instead we see a more arrogant, shrewd and even violent version, who resembles more of a typical run of the mill politician than what we've historically come to expect.
All in all, Joaquin Phoenix delivers a visceral, spellbinding performance for the ages, which is supported by director Todd Phillips slow burning yet enthrallingly intense pace. And for me the silent MVP is the chilling & unsettling tone which is largely attributed to the captivating score provided by Icelandic composer (Hildur Ingveldardóttir Guðnadóttir) which really helps shoulder the load in some of the movies "slower" moments. All in all the ingredients I've mentioned make for a near flawless recipe for success, regardless of what the box office numbers look like I believe this film will sweep Award shows in 2020. From the score, to the writing, the directing, cinematography and especially it's star Joaquin Phoenix who delivered a career defining performance. Simply put, this movie is cinematic nirvana. Enjoy it with family, friends, a loved one or even a random bumble rendezvous this film is absolutely for everyone and is a sure conversation piece for weeks to come. Yes it is dark, but so is the real world, and so is mental illness. As a species we cannot continue ignoring things or people that make us uncomfortable, or the conversations that seem unsettling, or the people who need our help, this film serves as a reminder of what can potentially happen when we do.