Joker 2019 stars Joaquin Phoenix, Robert DeNiro, and Zazie Beetz, and was directed by Todd Phillips, who’s directorial output has mostly consisted of comedies like The Hangover trilogy up to this point. Joker serves as an origin story for, unsurprisingly, The Joker, and focuses on the downtrodden loner comedian, Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix. Over the course of the film, we watch as Arthur gives into his darker impulses, gradually becoming the Joker. I knew that Joker wasn’t gonna be a typical comic book movie, but I really underestimated just how distinct it would be. We’ve truly never seen a comic book movie like this. We’ve definitely had dark stories like V for Vendetta, Watchmen, and even The Dark Knight (which I promise I won’t reference too much here). We’ve even had character-driven movies like Logan. But, I really can’t overstate just how different Joker is from any of those other movies.
It almost doesn’t feel like a comic book movie. And if it wasn’t for one mention of the name Joker and a handful of tie-ins to Bruce and Thomas Wayne, this movie could easily pass as its own thing as an original story with original characters. All of the Joker, Gotham, and Batman stuff is just a bonus that really helps us frame this movie in a way that’s already familiar and recognizable. My biggest suggestion for anybody planning to see this movie is to take all your preconceived notions and throw them away. There aren’t any superheroes here, so we don’t get that classic battle between good and evil. The only battles we get are internal ones. Joker is an extremely character-driven movie. In fact, the plot the thing that’s being driven by the character is really secondary.
It’s interesting and gripping, but the character is king here. And although Joker is technically an origin story, it’s far less about the Joker than it is about Arthur Fleck. If we’re gonna talk about this character, the first thing that needs to be acknowledged is Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. He absolutely dives into this role and completely embodies the character, while still making it his own. He’s the fifth live-action Joker we’ve had on the big screen and each actor has brought something different to the character. Cesar Romero and his painted moustache gave us a very campy Joker in the 1966 Batman movie.
Jack Nicholson played an extremely over-the-top cartoonish version of the character in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie. Heath Ledger took the character in a more serious direction, playing up his psychotic and anarchistic tendencies in The Dark Knight. Jared Leto introduced a modern edgy style to his version of the Joker in Suicide Squad. And now we’ve got Joaquin Phoenix who’s fully exposed the inner demons of this character. This Joker is not cartoonish. He’s not cool or edgy, he’s not anarchistic he’s just broken. He’s deeply disturbed and this manifests both physically and mentally and Phoenix does a wonderful job capturing both aspects.
His physical transformation for this role is startling. He’s very gaunt and almost sickly skinny, showing off his ribs at almost every opportunity. But, it’s not just his physical appearance it’s also the way he carries himself. He’s awkward in the way he interacts with other people, but he’s also just physically awkward. The way he runs, the way he randomly dances by himself it all furthers our understanding of this character. Beyond the physicality of the role, Joaquin Phoenix brings a powerhouse emotional performance.
This character goes through so many things and has such wide-ranging responses and reactions. He’s brooding and depressed, but also extremely erratic in his behavior. It’s draining and exhausting just watching him, so I can only imagine what it was like for Phoenix to actually portray the character. Like I said before, this is a Joker origin movie, but it’s more an exploration of the circumstances that could lead somebody down a path towards becoming something like the Joker. It’s an incredibly dark and pessimistic film with this unsettling undercurrent of reality. Cause, even though we’re focused on a comic book villain, what he goes through, what he does, and what he becomes isn’t just some fantasy thing beyond the realm of possibility. There aren’t superheroes running around with capes in this world.
This is certainly fiction, but it’s grounded in disturbing reality in the same way that a film like Taxi Driver was. Arthur Fleck is a surprisingly relatable character who just can’t catch a break. This film focuses on a lot of real things and circumstances to ground the story. Mental illness is a very big component of this movie, but rather than broadly condemning mental illness or portraying it as something that Arthur Fleck should or could control, this movie provides more of a commentary on mental health services and their availability.
Fleck is suffering from severe mental illness, but he actively seeks help and so, while he’s not exactly in a good place at the beginning of the movie, he does have some support. As the movie progresses though, that help and support system he has disintegrates. And without it, he starts to lose control. His sense of reality warps and he no longer has a good grasp on the difference between right and wrong. He just wants to be heard and noticed, but without the support that he had, he struggles to achieve that in a reasonable way.
Joker is a tough movie to watch. It’s unsettling, but it’s also uncomfortable. It lingers on certain images and moments for just a little longer than you want it to. Something as simple as Fleck’s laugh can cause this. It makes you uncomfortable not cause it’s creepy, it just makes you feel bad after a while. You want to look away. You don’t want to see him or hear him going through what he goes through. Like I said, he cannot catch a break in this movie, so it’s largely a very downtrodden, draining experience. It’s also an extremely conflicting experience. Arthur is our main character and we follow him on this journey. We see his struggles and the things he has to endure.
We know the pieces of information he discovers about himself and his family and see the effect that has on his mental state. And so we sympathize with him; we feel bad for him. But, at the same time, we have to remember that this man becomes the Joker and does some terrible things. So, as an audience member, it’s really hard to decide how you feel about him. You don’t want him to succeed in his plans as the Joker, yet you want him to win for once. You want him to be okay and his transformation into the Joker is a cathartic experience; a positive experience (at least internally) for him. And so, it’s just really conflicting.
It’s such a stressful and draining watch cause you’re constantly fearful of Arthur, but also fearful for him. A lot of bad stuff happens to him, so you’re always worried that somebody’s gonna take advantage of him or hurt him. But, at the same time, he’s so erratic and unhinged that you never know when he’s gonna do something to somebody else. He’s very easy to set off and so, it’s always a toss up whether he’s gonna snap or have a tough-to-watch breakdown. Is he gonna attack somebody or is he gonna pull all the shelves out of his fridge and climb inside? The character study aspects of this movie are certainly central, but I’d be remiss not to mention the technical aspects as well.
This film is set in 1981 and, aesthetically-speaking, it really nails that time period. Everything has this grimy feel to it and little touches (like Arthur’s near-constant smoking) solidify this setting. The film itself even feels like it’s of that time period. The color correction, the opening titles, even the length of individual takes and the way it’s edited. It’s a phenomenally-shot movie. The cinematography is superb and there are certain scenes that are just so well-crafted that it feels weird to think they’re from a comic book movie.
They’re too numerous to mention all of them, but one that really stood out to me was a shot of Arthur sitting on the back bench of a city bus. The camera slowly dolly zooms in on him, but at the same time, the bus is moving forward, so we see the background moving away from him out that back window, making for a really visually interesting shot. I also really loved the mirrored scenes involving him looking out a window. Near the beginning, we see him (as just Arthur Fleck) depressingly staring out a bus window, but a similar shot of him later in the movie (as the Joker) reveals a very different outlook.
There’s a lot of that type of scene repetition that really emphasizes the change Arthur experiences during his gradual transformation into the Joker. And that, combined with the intense performance, results in an incredibly compelling film. Alright, let’s talk about the pros and cons. Pro number one is Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. He takes the Joker in a direction we’ve never seen before, revealing a deeply disturbed and broken character who’s nearly equal parts sympathetic and unforgiveable. It’s very uncomfortable and difficult to watch at points, but remains fascinating. I still do prefer Heath Ledger’s version of the character, but they’re so different that it’s tough to make a real direct comparison.
The second pros has gotta be the character study of Arthur Fleck. Phoenix’s performance brought it to life, but without a devastatingly poignant script and well-written character development, this movie wouldn’t have been nearly what it is. The startling realism to the story puts Arthur’s transformation into the Joker into a more unsettling and impactful context and really pushes this story to emotional heights rarely seen in a comic book movie. Pro number three is the culmination of this film’s technical aspects. The cinematography is the stand-out here, but not the only thing the film should be commended for.
The editing and structure of the shots also aids in telling the story. The score’s great and even the soundtrack adds some interesting insight to the narrative, featuring tracks as wide-ranging as Sinatra’s Send in the Clowns to Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll Part II to Cream’s White Room. On the con side, my only real issue with this film is that it felt a tad self-indulgent at points. It wasn’t anything major and it worked in the grand scheme of things. It just had this unnecessary lingering quality at points. When that was done to actively make the audience uncomfortable, it was okay. But, there were several times where it didn’t really contribute anything character-wise or story-wise. The excessive length of the numerous slow-motion scenes of Arthur dancing is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.
They were exceptionally well-shot and didn’t take away anything from the movie, but didn’t add anything either. I’m gonna give Joker 4 out of 5 paws. I actually had a really hard time figuring out how to rate this movie. Even though I enjoyed it, I’ll admit that my immediate reaction wasn’t one of full-blown admiration. But, I wanted to think on it for a while and I’m glad I did cause it’s let me soak in the nuances of the character and the overarching themes. I would recommend Joker to people who like downbeat character-driven stories. Even though this is technically a comic book movie, it’s far more of a dark character study than it is typical superhero fare.
It’s a tough watch, but a thought-provoking one. So, if you like that type of movie and don’t go in expecting a full-fledged Joker movie, then I think you’ll appreciate this one. If you liked Joker, I’ve gotta make the obvious recommendation and suggest you check out Taxi Driver. It’s another story about a complex and disturbed character who makes a series of uncomfortable and unsettling decisions. I would also suggest you check out The King of Comedy for similarities too numerous to mention, including a very interesting role reversal for Robert De Niro. And if you just want some more of the Joker, I would definitely recommend The Dark Knight.
Heath Ledger’s rendition of the character is quite different from Joaquin Phoenix’s, but there’s still a similar darkness to their portrayals and that movie offers something a bit more traditional in terms of comic book movies. Alright, a couple questions for you guys. Number one: Have you seen Joker? If so, what’d you think of it? And number two: Who’s your favorite Joker? Be sure to leave your answers in the comments below so we can get a discussion going.