JOKER as a film manages to capture the essence of The Joker as a character. Anchored by an amazing performance by Joaquin Phoenix, JOKER is a look into a man’s descent to darkness.
Phoenix is Arthur Fleck, a man with issues who lives with and takes care of his sick mother Penny. Arthur works as a clown for hire while suffering from mental health concerns where he takes many different medications. He also has aspirations to become a stand-up comic. From the outset, we are made to sympathize with Arthur’s situation and you do for a time. He’s picked on, he’s ignored, he’s in dire straights. However all of that changes and Arthur begins a transformation that will have lasting consequences for the city of Gotham.
There have been many questions and thoughts about JOKER. One being about its director Todd Phillips. Could the director of THE HANGOVER trilogy handle something so volatile? I would say depending on your read of the film, that could be yes or no. For me it was a yes. The reason going back to my opening line, the way this film is constructed, is similar to that of the Clown Prince of Crime. It’s hard-hitting, it’s chaotic, it’s indecisive. After leaving the theater, I can see this one being discussed for years. The polarization of the film is why I found it a great watch. This isn’t a BATMAN v SUPERMAN type of split, this is something different. And honestly, I love seeing something like this for the comic book movie genre. Even if it was widely disliked, I like that this managed to get released.
The construction of the film is outstanding. Phillips and his team really recreated a decaying urban American city in the 1980s. This isn’t the stylized Gotham of the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher films. This is more like the origin of the decline of Gotham seen in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Despite the grimy look, there is a beautiful sheen to the look thanks to gorgeous cinematography by Lawrence Sher (who should get awards consideration).
Then there is the haunting score by Hildur Guonadottir. She brings an underlying note of tragedy to the film. The score is strong, but never intrusive. It doesn’t have a distinct theme for the character like Hans Zimmer or Danny Elfman have in the past. I found that a positive because it really highlights the fact that one of Gotham’s biggest threats came from an ordinary citizen.
Much has been made of the film’s lack of a stance. I felt this was by design since the character of The Joker has no stance. I would not disagree with those whose criticisms see it as shallow and empty, this is true, I however saw it as true to the character. The Joker never commits to anything. Never an ideal, never a purpose except mayhem. Even the use of certain song once Arthur’s transformation is complete feels in line with the character as I can see him doing something like that, just to get the rise out of people. Honestly, the character is empty, which is why his battles with Batman are always intense due to Bruce Wayne’s mission. The Joker’s perspective on the world is always made known by him. To accomplish this. JOKER the film is built entirely on Arthur’s perspective. We descend as he does. You question what you see because you know something isn’t right with Arthur. We don’t get the answers, and I loved that. I love a film intentionally setting itself up for different views. The film is intentionally ambiguous in its leanings which lend credence to the whole “multiple choice” path the character takes when describing his origins. While JOKER definitely feels like a one and done origin, I must say I would love to see a short film, set 10-20 years down the line, that includes a conversation between Phoenix’s Joker and his future nemesis.
JOKER is a fascinating piece of entertainment that I am happy to have taken a moment to experience for myself. Its open ended structure and viewpoints are perfectly aligned with the character it covers. It’s a sad, uncomfortable and when it needs to be, visceral film showing the decline of a man. We may say the movie feels empty, but no matter which side of the fence you fall on the film, you will feel something. Arthur becomes the Joker, and the audience knows definitively that they are not.