Review: Joker

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Over the past few years, we have been bombarded by studios’ attempts at bringing superhero icons to the big screen, most notably the efforts of Marvel, whose twenty-three film run culminated in the box-office breaking ‘Avengers: Endgame’. It’s been easy to feel overwhelmed, and it would have been even easier for audiences to pass off Todd Phillips’ new ‘Joker’ movie as more of the same. Despite this however, it’s clear from Joker’s earliest minutes that it is a different beast entirely.

Calling this a ‘comic book movie’ feels like an insult to the serious themes the movie tries to convey. The plot does centre (loosely) around the titular comic book character, but aside from a few references to other characters from the same universe, the film could be a character study unrelated to superheroes and supervillains. Most of the usual ingredients aren’t present here either: there are no quips or puns, no explosive CGI fight scenes. We don’t even have any characters who are credibly good or evil, everyone has a greyish morality. If that wasn’t evidence enough to prove that this movie isn’t what you might be expecting, notice the producing credit for Martin Scorsese, a vocal critic of the Marvel movie conveyor belt. This is an unashamedly real piece of filmmaking, and it deserves to be treated as such.

The visceral tone of the film is, in a large part, down to the excellent work of cinematographer, Lawrence Sher, whose previous work on ‘The Hangover Trilogy’ gave no indication of the way in which he would make Gotham feel so alive and vibrant. Sher’s city feels inhabited and plays its own part in the Joker’s tragedy. However a lot of respect most go towards Todd Phillips who, with this movie, has stepped out of the shadows of his previous work and crafted something very genuine and shocking. Both Phillips and screenwriter Scott Silver have managed to tell a story less about a famous supervillain, and more about an unstable man disguised as a supervillain story.

Throughout all of its two hour run time, we exclusively follow Arthur Fleck, a man on the edge of insanity, pushed closer to it by the harassment he faces both at his job, and in public for being different. Arthur is barely held together by his seven types of medical pills, but despite this, he never stops trying to make others happy. That is until his reality is broken, and he begins his short but powerful descent into becoming a psychopathic killer.  At its core, the movie is about society’s effect on Arthur and how it creates the demons he faces through its selfishness and lack of empathy. Phillips makes the intelligent directorial decision of never forcing us to root for Arthur, allowing us to judge him for his actions on their own terms. You never feel cornered into supporting one group of characters or one ideology, we are just there to experience the story.

Joaquin Phoenix is, of course, excellent as both Arthur and the Joker, who he plays as different shades of the same character. Phoenix’s deranged portrayal helps the movie to transcend averageness and it is unsettling to watch him in almost every scene. His performance has created Oscar buzz and deservedly so, it truly is an incredible piece of acting.

Having said that, the movie has garnered a high level of controversy partially due to Phoenix’s aforementioned performance. Joker is horrific in some places, but never gratuitous. Gore is never used for the sake of gore, but to further the plot. Nevertheless, when Joker is violent, it doesn’t hold back. There has also been some debate over the rich/poor message of the film, but Joker’s messages are so confused that I’m not sure what statement it is trying to make. Thomas Wayne (the personification of Gotham’s rich) is shown first as a generous and honorable man and then a selfish jerk, whilst Gotham’s poor are either sweet and caring or violent and murderous. The film isn’t really sure which side of which argument it should take, and it doesn’t help that it isn’t the most subtle film either.

Regardless, Joker is a good movie irrespective of the controversy surrounding it. It’s probably not as groundbreaking as it wants to be, but Joaquin Phoenix provides an incredible performance to complement some fantastic cinematography. It’s not for everyone but then again, it’s not trying to be.

All pictures copyright Warner Bros.