Time: 122 Minutes
Age Rating: Violence, cruelty & offensive language
Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck/Joker
Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin
Zazie Beetz as Sophie Dumond
Frances Conroy as Penny Fleck
Brett Cullen as Thomas Wayne
Director: Todd Phillips
Forever alone in a crowd, failed comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) seeks connection as he walks the streets of Gotham City. Arthur wears two masks — the one he paints for his day job as a clown, and the guise he projects in a futile attempt to feel like he’s part of the world around him. Isolated, bullied and disregarded by society, Fleck begins a slow descent into madness as he transforms into the criminal mastermind known as the Joker.
Joker was one of my most anticipated movies of the year. The idea of a solo Joker movie but also one completely disconnected from the established DCEU seemed questionable at best. Also I wasn’t quite sure about director Todd Phillips helming it, I liked the few movies I’ve seen from him but I did have my doubts. However the inclusion of Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role completely sold me on the movie, and seeing trailer after trailer and hearing about their take on the iconic character, I was excited to say the least, I haven’t seen a comic book movie taken in a direction like this. Joker is already proving to be a very divisive movie, but I’m glad that I’m firmly on the side that loved it.
I’ll be sure not to reveal too much about Joker, but people going in should know what kind of movie they’re in for. It is a slow burn character study following the deterioration of a mentally ill man, who eventually becomes the Joker, that’s the best way I can put it. For 3 quarters of the movie we don’t even see Arthur in the final Joker makeup, so don’t expect a Joker movie with a lot of action, mayhem or anything. You could almost call the movie Arthur: Portrait of a Killer Clown or something. Personally I loved the movie for what it is. You can probably tell that it’s a dark movie but it’s not just because it’s violent, it’s fittingly uncomfortable and grim for the most part. It is quite possibly the bleakest and most ‘disturbing’ comic book movie, and again it’s not necessarily because of the violence. The third act is where the movie particularly ramps up with Arthur as the Joker, and was personally the highlight of the movie. Now much has been said that we are following a villain, and especially one as infamous as The Joker. I’ll give my perspective on how it handles those aspects, but just know that I’m not covering the age old question of “Does movies or video games lead to violence?”, because if you’ve read much of my reviews you can probably figure out my perspective regarding that. The movie doesn’t point out that the character is doing bad things because the actions are obviously bad. Him murdering people shouldn’t require a giant sign to flash saying “this is bad, don’t do this”. Not to mention that this is Joker we are talking about, one of the most clear cut villains in fiction you can think of. Now in saying that, this is the first time in a movie where you have to actually look at Joker as a human being and more than just a comic book villain (or even an Agent of Chaos), and I guess that both frightens and concerns people. The movie isn’t necessarily asking you to sympathise or feel sorry for Arthur Fleck (the lead character who would eventually become the Joker) every step of the story. I guess I’d say that I was sympathetic towards Arthur for the first 10 minutes with everything that is happening to him. Otherwise for most of the rest of the movie, I just felt sympathy for the acts made upon him, but not necessarily to Arthur himself. While you might understand why he does the things he does with his circumstances, you aren’t necessarily in a position where you think “this is perfectly justified and I support everything he’s doing”.
There are a few criticisms I’ve heard. One is how clearly it’s inspired by Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, but is a little too derivative of it and is ultimately just a riff on them with the character of Joker. While I guess there are plenty of aspects that are taken from those two movies (even though I get the feeling that Phillips and co. were very self aware about this while making it), I think Joker does enough to separate itself from them to be its own movie, for the most part at least. I do like how they keep Joker as a standalone movie. Without spoiling things, I guess storywise you could follow it up with a sequel, but it seems very much like it was intended to be a one off movie and not one intended to start off a cinematic universe. One thing is for sure though, you definitely won’t see him face off against Robert Pattinson’s Batman or anything, so put that out of your mind if you even thinking about it. I liked what the movie was about thematically and was trying to talk about. It’s about class warfare, abuse, media, the way mentally ill people are treated (or not treated), mental healthcare, capitalism and more, it’s at least making an attempt to talk about them. Despite what you might’ve heard, this movie is NOT about incels or incel culture at all. People have talked about all the dangerous and problematic parts to the movie, but honestly the only real problematic and downright irresponsible part of the movie was the questionable use of a Gary Glitter song in one scene. Now in terms of some slight issues I had, there aren’t many but considering I was just addressing some criticisms I guess I should mention some of my own. There is a particular twist that happens during the movie, I saw it coming but that’s not necessarily the problem. It’s more that the reveal spent so much time flat out explaining the twist to the audience when we’d be able to figure it out without the obvious explanation. I guess there are some moments that are a little rough around the edges for what they were aiming for. Some of the attempts at making commentary on some of the aforementioned themes I guess were a little heavy handed and too “on the nose” at times, but I could get past it, I just sort of put that up to the story being told from the Joker’s perspective. It’s really not a subtle movie at all and you pick up on that really quickly. Joker also could’ve gone a little deeper into some concepts, I almost feel like the movie could’ve been a little longer to flesh certain parts out more. I was fully invested in the movie at least on a first watch, but for the most part the plot goes in the general direction that you’d expect it to, with not a lot of surprises. Also while I largely like the ending, I felt that it would’ve been a little more effective if it ended 30 seconds to a minute earlier on a particular visual beat, but I’m just nit-picking at this point.
The rest of the movie is well made but it’s really Joaquin Phoenix that makes this movie. His work here as Arthur Fleck/Joker is extraordinary. This could very well be a career best performance from him, and considering his past work that’s really saying a lot (it’s at least on the level as his work on The Master). He’s pretty much in every single scene of the movie and relies so much on him delivering, and he absolutely does. One aspect that was particularly interesting about this take was his laugh. As we all know, in most forms of media, Joker typically laughs because he finds something funny, usually something morbid that he’s just done. In this movie however, it’s actually a result of a real life condition where Arthur laughs and can’t stop laughing even when he wants to, and for the most part it seems utterly painful for him. It’s an original idea for the Joker to have for his laugh, and I’m surprised they didn’t have that as an interpretation for him in a comic book (correct me if I’m wrong and one comic already did that, I’m not a massive comic book expert). As previously mentioned, the movie forces you to at least look at him as a human being and somewhat empathise with him, and this was a risky movie. However Phoenix managed to deliver such a complex performance where you could actually look at him as more than just a monster (even if he is that). At the same time, you can recognise that Fleck is absolutely disturbed and demented, and has his fair share of genuinely scary moments. Arthur’s transformation into the Joker also was fascinating, as he gets pushed (and pushes himself) further down into that direction. As he embraces the Joker persona more and more, you see him more confident and full of life, especially compared to earlier on in the movie. And on a side note, I’m not even going to compare him to Heath Ledger’s Joker or any of the other Jokers for that matter, there’s really no point. They’re completely different Jokers, and Phoenix does more than enough to make this incarnation of the character to stand on his own.
The rest of the supporting cast really don’t have much to do compared to Joaquin but they do the best they can possibly do. Whether that be Robert De Niro as a talk show host that Arthur idolises, Zazie Beetz as a neighbour that Arthur is interested in, Frances Conroy as Arthur’s mother, or Brett Cullen as Thomas Wayne, they all fit into the story well. Even some of the brief one scene appearances like Brian Tyree Henry played their small parts well. Now I want to briefly touch upon the Wayne aspects of the story, in a non spoiler way of course. It can be said that it’s possible for this movie to just have Joker, Gotham and Arkham Asylum being the only DC references that are in the movie, and they didn’t need to include Thomas or Bruce Wayne. Personally I thought it fitted in the story alright, and there is a certain aspect with Bruce’s existence in this movie that does make the movie even better towards the end. Though I can’t exactly explain it without going into heavy detail, hopefully you’ll be able to figure it out.
This is by far and away the best work that director Todd Phillips has done, his direction of Joker is shockingly exceptional, and it’s not even that I think he’s a bad director or anything. Gotham is portrayed as a dirty 70s and 80s New York City. It really does capture the vibes that Scorsese gave in aforementioned movies like Taxi Driver, but I don’t think Phillips is just imitating or ripping off that style, just clearly heavily inspired by it. It’s a gorgeous looking movie, the cinematography is stunning. There isn’t really a whole lot of violence, and when it comes to comic book movies, there have been some more violent films out there (Watchmen, Deadpool 1 and 2, Logan, etc). However it was nonetheless effective and disturbing, and it’s more to do with how realistic it looks and sounds, it’s graphic but it happens very fast. But if you’re just talking about levels of violence, I’ve definitely seen plenty of movies with way higher levels of extreme violence than Joker. The score by Hildur Guðnadóttir was great, tense and eerie, fitting perfectly with the rest of the film. For sure one of the best scores of the year. Most of the other song choices were also good, although I’m still thinking about that one Gary Glitter song… needless to say this probably is the only criticism of the movie that I won’t defend against whatsoever.
Joker isn’t going to work for everyone, and the reactions online already indicates that it’s probably going to remain the most divisive movie of the entire year. I’m not sure that a lot of people are prepared for the type of movie it is. It’s not a movie I’m going to rewatch constantly but as it is, I think it’s great. Honestly I’m surprised at how well Todd Phillips (mostly) put together this movie. But it’s of course Joaquin Phoenix who really makes this movie, and it’s worth watching to see his extraordinary performance, even if you don’t like the rest of the movie. The idea of DC Black with all these other separate stories disconnected from the DCEU certainly have a lot of potential if we can see comic book movies taken in a different direction that we haven’t seen before. As for whether Joker should have a sequel, I personally don’t think it really needs to, it’s fine with how it is. But if Todd Phillips has some great ideas for a follow up and Joaquin is (unexpectedly) up for another movie in the iconic role, then I’d be on board with it.