I won’t mince words here, Todd Phillips’ Joker might be one of my favorite films of the year. Maybe even the last couple years. Granted, I haven’t seen a ton of new films this year. I loved Midsommar as well, but I need to watch it again before I sit and write about that cinema experience. But with Joker fresh in my head I can tell you it was both everything and nothing like what you’ve heard it to be. It’s a grimy, gloomy, chaotic film that doesn’t pretend there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. It doesn’t pay homage to comic book films of the past, or really comic books at all, yet it cleverly weaves in and out of Batman noir like a drunk on cannery row. It’s the story of how a disturbed, delusional man barely hanging on lets go and dives head first into the belly of the beast and comes out reborn a cackling lunatic. It’s Todd Phillips’ best film, and yet another outstanding acting turn for Joaquin Phoenix.
I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of an origin story based on the world’s most unreliable narrator. The Joker, to me, has always been such an interesting villain for the very fact we knew nothing about him. No history, no origin, no tragic backstory to explain his atrocious, terrifying acts of violence upon Gotham. His laughs and humor only made his heinous acts all the more frightening. Having Hollywood take a crack at “humanizing” the Joker seemed like a terrible idea. But I was wrong. What writer/director Todd Phillips, along with his co-writer Scott Silver, have done is give us a plausible backstory for Joker. And they’ve done it without turning him into some tragic figure. Sure, he’s shown going thru one massive personal hit after another. But he’s written as more of bomb, with Gotham merely lighting the long dormant fuse he’s hidden from plain view.
Arthur Fleck, played brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix, is a disturbed man on the edge. He sees a social worker weekly, is on a baker’s dozen worth of medications, chain smokes, takes care of his older, ailing mother, and works at a place called Ha Ha’s, which is a clown rental business. Fleck’s dream is to be a stand up comedian, but as his mother points out early on, “I mean, don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?” Arthur is not funny. In fact, he’s painfully unfunny most of the time. He worships late night host Murray Franklin, played by Robert DeNiro. DeNiro does Johnny Carson, as if Carson was from New York and sold used cars on the weekend. Carson had a sweet way of making fun of people. Maybe it was the Midwestern part of him. DeNiro’s Murray is more like Don Rickles. As Franklin, Robert DeNiro lays it on thick and seems to have a hell of a time in this role.
Of course, one thing leads to another. One bad day after the next slowly opens the curtain to who we all know as the Joker. It’s a subtle but swift awakening, and one that Phoenix performs masterfully. His portrayal of Arthur Fleck hanging on to any semblance of sanity is breathtaking. While I wouldn’t say this is Joaquin Phoenix’ best performance, it’s in his top five, or three. If anything I hope this leads some folks to go back and watch Phoenix as Freddie Quell in The Master, which for my money is his greatest work(a character nearly as unpredictable as Joker.) But as the disturbed clown Arthur Fleck, Joaquin does an amazing job of getting us to both have sympathy for and be frightened of him. Even with life dropping one anvil after another onto Arthur’s head, you get the feeling that Fleck would’ve ended up where he eventually does despite the societal circumstances. The pain in his eyes is only matched by the darkness lurking behind, which Phoenix incredibly reveals little by little.
Besides Phoenix, the next great character in this film is Gotham. Shot to look like sleazy New York City circa 1981, nothing so filthy and ugly ever looked so beautiful. Phillips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher give us a realistic portrait of a city in crisis. The towering Gothic structures of Tim Burton’s Batman and the skyscrapers and slick cityscapes of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy are replaced with a downtrodden, urban landscape where a garbage strike has created piles of trash everywhere and X-rated movie houses are on nearly every street. Todd Phillips use New York City, Jersey City, and Newark as stand-ins for Gotham and that gives us a very realistic, gritty Gotham. 70s films like Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon, Death Wish, and even A Clockwork Orange act as inspiration for the look of Joker, which only adds to the cinematic weight here.
Another ingredient to the film that makes it work so well is the score by Hildur Guðnadóttir. The Icelandic composer worked with Johann Johannsson in the past, and she creates a score filled with strings and big, dramatic turns. It works beautifully to show the quick mental slide of Arthur as he slowly dons the permanent mask known as the Joker. Guðnadóttir composed a traditional score for an untraditional comic book movie, which only adds to the film’s heft and bravado.
Though Joker is a gritty, hard R-rated comic book movie, it still stays true to where the titular character comes from. Besides Phillips and Silvers’ gritty New York cinema inspiration and influence, there are most certainly nods to Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. And though Batman doesn’t exist here, the Wayne family are present in Fleck’s life, and you see how Joker’s actions play a part in turning a young Bruce into the Dark Knight himself.
Joker turns everything you know about the comic book movie on its head. It’s a beautifully shot, dark noir tale about one of the most infamous comic book villains in history. It adds a grimy dose of realism to the backstory of Batman’s greatest villain, and one that at times feels very of the times despite taking place in 1981. A deluded, disturbed man obsessed with an unobtainable dream gives into his true self, which is a true agent of chaos. Todd Phillips takes his knack for making adult comedies and transfers that into the comic book world, to stunning effect.
Forget the controversy, forget the talk shows, and forget the clickbait articles. Joker is the real deal.