One of the things I enjoy most about cinema is that it goes through phases, with interesting trends developing over time. Where some drag on far too long (I’m talking about you – unnecessary remakes), others are a little more fleeting, and over the last eighteen months or so, some great trends have started to develop.
We’ve had a successful influx of musical biopics (BoRhap, Rocketman, Judy) and the bittersweet ending of several eras (GoT, Avengers, Star Wars). But, for me, the best trend of this year is the successes of comedic writers and directors, stepping out of their comfort zones, and with Joker, director Todd Phillips joins his Hangover 2 teammate (Craig Mazin –Chernobyl) in delivering some truly outstanding content.
Gotham is a city that is balancing on a knife edge, while the upper echelons of society are living the high life, the rest of the city is struggling with crime, unemployment and poverty. In amongst this bleakness we see Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally-ill clown-for-hire and doting son, who dreams of being a stand-up comedian just like his idol, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Unfortunately, Arthur constantly finds himself pushed aside, disregarded and mistreated by those around him, pushing him into a downward spiral of violence, that sees him take on a new persona…
Can you introduce me as ‘Joker’?Joaquin Phoenix – Joker 2019
First things first, it has to be said that Phoenix was phenomenal as the titular character, without a doubt earning him a fourth Oscar nomination and, more than likely, his first win. He brings a raw and visceral performance to the screen that somehow balances an unforeseen vulnerability to the character, with the cold, uncaring insanity that we know and love. There are some that will disagree, but for both Mark and I, Phoenix has managed to scale, and overcome, the lofty heights set by Heath Ledger and established his place as our favourite Joker.
That being said, whether by accident or design, there were a lot of nods to Heath Ledger’s turn as the Clown Prince, which were inconspicuous enough to feel natural but added an extra element to the viewing experience.
The strength of Phoenix’s performance is enough to make you remember him and only him, but he had a strong supporting cast around him. Frances Conroy and Zazie Beetz were both charming as Arthur’s ailing mother and friendly neighbour, respectively. The wealthy aspect of Gotham was, of course, represented by the Wayne family. Brett Cullen’s Thomas Wayne was unlikeable, arrogant and, to be honest, a bit of a dickhead but fit perfectly with the tone and style of the film.
I’ve used the term ‘gritty realism’ in reviews before but none have embodied that phrase more so than this film. There are no overtly elaborate plots or action sequences, there is obviously violence but it’s sporadic and relatively fleeting, which makes it even more impactful. At times, the script is sparse but there are moments when what is not said is more powerful than what it is, and in this respect, Arthur’s notebook plays a integral part. The muted tone and colour palette adds to the aesthetic of the film, and mirrors Arthur’s journey to the Joker.
But what really sets this film apart is the brilliant musical score, composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir (Chernobyl – 2019, Arrival – 2016). Her music is emotional and unsettling, working in such a way that it could both dictate and support a scene, yet combining so flawlessly with Phoenix’s performance that it was hard to tell whether the performance or the music came first.
Although, the main character in this film is one of the most iconic comic book villains of all time, this is not an origin story like we are used to. To be perfectly honest with you, for those uninitiated few that are not in the know, they probably wouldn’t even realise that this is a comic book movie. And, to be some extent, it’s not. Yes, writers Todd Phillips and Scott Silver have taken inspiration from the Alan Moore comic, ‘The Killing Joke’ but the feel of the film is less Dark Knight and more Taxi Driver. The focus is on the character, not the story, and that is what makes this film so good.
One of my main concerns, going into this screening, was the idea of giving an origin story to a character whose past is so elusive and mysterious, however Phillips managed this perfectly, throwing enough doubt into the mix that, despite knowing how the Joker came to be, we still know next to nothing about who he is. I don’t know about you, but I think that is absolute genius storytelling.
There were occasions of, what I originally thought was, gratuitous DC references, in particular the Thomas Wayne storyline, however by the time the credits were rolling, I couldn’t imagine the film without them. Director, Todd Phillips, did just enough to firmly establish his film within a Gotham City that we know and love, without surrendering any of its own originality. This is truly a standalone film, and as much as I would love to see a reprisal of Phoenix’s Joker, I hope that it stays that way.
Side note: Joker is the first film for the newly formed ‘DC Black Label’, a production company that will focus on standalone films outside of the DCEU, so fingers crossed for some more great movies like this.
Have you seen it? Let me know your thoughts.