Movie Review Monday: Joker (2019)
This weekend saw the release of Warner Bros. Pictures’ controversial comic book film focusing on the Clown Prince of Crime. Joker was directed by Todd Phillips and written by Phillips and Scott Silver. The story follows the character of Arthur Fleck, a failed stand-up comedian, and his transformation into the future Batman villain, Joker. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, and Robert De Niro plays the part of comedic talk show host, Murray Franklin. The cast also includes Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Douglas Hodge, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, and Brian Tyree Henry.
The film begins with a quick introduction to the declining state of Gotham City, and an Arthur Fleck applying clown makeup to himself. He soon finishes getting ready, and in his clown outfit, he twirls around a sign for a company going out of business. A group of teenagers steal his sign, but when he runs after them, they brutally attack him in an alley. Arthur returns home to his ailing mother, and the two of them watch Murray Franklin’s talk show as they frequently do and discuss Thomas Wayne’s mayoral run. It is also revealed that Arthur has a neurological disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, and he meets with a counselor on a regular basis due to a previous incident. Arthur is given a gun by a coworker to protect himself after the alley attack, but when the gun falls on the floor during a gig at a children’s hospital, Arthur is laid off. After another attack on the subway, Arthur finds himself further following a dangerous path.
I’ll begin my review by stating that I thought the film was brilliantly crafted, but I do understand the controversy and hesitation surrounding the film. It is at times a difficult film; it is bleak and unsettling as it follows a mentally unstable man embracing violent ends. None of this exempts the fact that I found Joker to be a solid movie with a strong story. It is an origin story worthy of this twisted character, and there are a lot of aspects about the film that simply work. The cinematography is distinct, frequently focusing on small, intimate moments that set up the state of Arthur’s mind along the way. The gritty atmosphere perfectly suits the city of Gotham, and even setting the film in the early 1980’s works well aesthetically. Music is a huge component of the film, and its incorporation highlights both the tense and ironic moments of the story.
The true highlight of the film, though, is Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck. There are other good performances throughout the movie, but honestly, all of them pale in comparison to Phoenix’s nuanced performance. From the physicality of the role to the uncontrollable maniacal laughter, it’s difficult to hit on all the ways that Phoenix nails this role. His performance is otherworldly, and while he makes Arthur mostly unsettling, he also delivers on moments where Arthur is pitiable. Phoenix makes this character that’s been beaten down time and time again truly something to be feared by the end of the movie, and his lack of remorse and feeling is what makes him so terrifying. Essentially, he makes Arthur as unsettling and unstable as the story calls for, and he does so with some excellent direction from Todd Phillips. This character is written with so much detail, and little details like the uncontrollable laughter, the question of his parentage, and his pursuit of standup comedy work seamlessly for the story. It’s said that every character is the hero of their own story, and that is how this character is written and how he perceives himself. He is not by any means an actual hero, but it does provide him with a compelling and twisted origin story.
Honestly, Joker is cinematically something to be noted but is a difficult watch as Arthur Fleck devolves into a crazed villain. Phoenix’s performance is undeniably amazing and could be considered one of the greatest of his career. I genuinely loved the way they incorporated the Batman lore and took it to a slightly different place, and the storyline ends up paying homage to several different iterations of this character. This portrayal of mental illness and the shockingly violent moments are understandably causing some criticism, but it also provides some interesting commentary on government, big business, and class disparity that is vital to the storyline. At the end of the day, Joker may not be an appropriate watch for everyone, but it is a solid origin for one of Batman’s greatest foes.
Mollie is a film enthusiast, aspiring writer/screenwriter, and a lover of all things Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Doctor Who. She is the co-founder of The Digital Shore (@thedigitalshore) and Above The Line (@atl_movies). You can follow her many adventures through Twitter and Instagram at @mcbeach.