Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “Joker” (2019)

Hangover director Todd Phillips’ 2019 film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a clown-for-hire who lives in the city with his elderly mother and who dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian, following in the footsteps of his talk show host idol Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) and aiming to bring joy and laughter to the world, but with a mental illness that causes him to laugh at inopportune times as well as attacks from some vicious, uncaring people from the street and the uncovering of some nasty secrets from his childhood, Arthur finds himself on a downward spiral that will see him inadvertently become a symbol for an incredibly violent uprising and will give rise to most notorious villain that Gotham City has ever known.

As a highly anticipated 2019 film, expectations have surely been high for the origin story of the clown prince of crime, with many eager to see just what chameleonic actor Joaquin Phoenix would do with the popular role. Having now finally been released amid its fair share of controversy relating to its depiction of violence (stuff I don’t pay attention to that much), it’s a relief to say that Joker is an excellently made and refreshingly bold film that will prove to be one of 2019’s best, due to its intriguing and engrossing story, talented direction, memorable music and, of course, the exquisite central performance from the always fascinating Joaquin Phoenix.

Starting off with the man of the hour, Phoenix is expectedly sublime in the title role; making a drastic change from his You Were Never Really Here dadbod to a Machinist level underweight figure, it’s another highly physical performance from the popular actor as he fully commits himself to the role (clearly gunning for that Oscar nomination) and having gleeful fun by constantly dancing around the screen, getting stuck into his clowning routines, and running in a particularly weird way but of course, as it was in YWNRH, he yet again proves that he acts amazingly when saying nothing at all and in the quieter scenes, he is able to let us know that the wires are slowly coming loose in his head by just staring straight ahead and using patient facial expressions to give the impression that he could snap at any time. Phoenix seems perfectly at ease with the very dark aspects of the character and loses himself in the jet black comedy and the increasingly unhinged nature of the role but importantly, he is able to get us to sympathise with him at those moments when he is being harshly treated for no reason and when he’s just trying to entertain kids in hospital, grabbing business for a failing store, taking care of his mother, or trying and make it in the comedy business despite his condition and the fact that his jokes aren’t funny, he effectively demonstrates the more human and relatable side of his character, making Arthur such a deep and fully fleshed out character. Overall, the always exciting Phoenix demonstrates his enviable skills yet again as he gives an intriguing, entertaining, powerful and unpredictable performance that helps greatly in making Joker such a memorable film.

Regarding the rest of the cast, Robert De Niro performs like the seasoned pro we all know him to be in the Jerry Lewis-inspired role of popular TV host Murray Franklin, Zazie Beetz makes the most of what she has in her brief but interesting role of Arthur’s neighbour with whom he develops a friendship, her part giving the film a good twist but it’s a character that is otherwise underdeveloped, Frances Conroy is well placed as Arthur’s mother, a seemingly well meaning matriarch but we slowly come to realise that she’s not all that she seems, Glenn Fleshler and Leigh Gill have important parts to play as Arthur’s fellow clowns Randall and Gary, and Brett Cullen plays a very different interpretation of Thomas Wayne, effectively helping to turn the whole Batman universe on its head.

Joker also has a very strong story; a far cry from the usual cartoonish supervillain origin tale, this film is perhaps more of a psychological thriller and devoted character study (clearly inspired by Scorcese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy) that gives a more realistic explanation as to how someone could become The Joker, namely through the neglect of the rich and privileged, the abuse and rude behaviour from fellow citizens and co-workers, and a series of truly unfortunate events – all it takes is one bad day. It’s a bona fide slow burner of a film and it’s compelling to watch the main character’s life slowly spiral out of control as we wonder just when he will go off the deep end and as a film that takes place in the Batman universe, it’s brave and intriguing to see the “flip side” of the traditional Batman story by casting the Wayne family in a more negative and unpleasant light and the telling of how an unfortunate random event can spiral out of control, starting a revolution and establishing The Joker as a revered, anarchic symbol/idea, is very well thought out and is a powerful thing to watch play out on screen.

Despite being known for comedies such as The Hangover, Due Date, and Road Trip, director Todd Phillips turns his hand to a darker and more dramatic style of filmmaking and at the helm of this incredibly dark film, he steers the ship quite spectacularly as he succeeds in slowly building a menacing, moody, disturbing, unnerving and unpredictable atmosphere and although he sometimes allows the pace to slacken and drag here and there, he makes sure that there’s always something interesting happening on screen and he is fully committed to making Joker as uncompromisingly bold and dark as possible, not concerned with tired universe building or typical audience-pleasing superhero antics, instead just focusing on creating a standalone drama about an ordinary man’s descent into villainy. He’s also adept at creating an air of mystery because often, we are left uncertain of what is real and what is being imagined by Arthur and when handling the violence, Phillips cleverly leaves some attacks off-camera, letting us use our own imaginations, while he makes the onscreen kills as shocking and as bold as possible.

Joker is also admirably designed as the cinematography is pleasing and the production design allows for a slightly different kind of Gotham than we’ve seen before, but above all else, Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score is remarkable and is an ideal companion to all the dark action that unfolds on screen; as it was in Day of the Soldado, she heavily favours the cello and many other “downbeat” instruments for a moody, heavy, dirge-like sound but although this style of music was overused in Soldado, it seems to fit more into this particular film and when played alongside footage of Joaquin Phoenix dancing or just going about his daily life, the film is given such raw power and a hypnotic, moody edge so because of this, Guðnadóttir will almost certainly be given a look-in at the major award ceremonies.

And regarding the depiction of violence, I can understand how people might take offence to it, seeing as how we seem to live in a scary era of mass shootings and increasingly violent behaviour, but there are far more violent and provoking films out there than Joker and I believe that there was nothing wrong with this film’s level of violence – as the first entry under the “DC Black” label, it aims to be a dark film that adds a little more bloodshed, grit and bad language into the Batman universe and I for one would welcome another film like this. It’s better than most things that the DCEU has come up with, anyway.

An engrossing, dark, stylish and boldly violent character study with a strong story, effective direction, memorable music, and a superb performance from Joaquin Phoenix.

★ ★ ★ ★

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