Movie Review: ‘Joker’ (Second Opinion)
You can read Gfunk’s review here!
Plot: Gotham City, 1981. The city is rife with crime, unemployment, and dealing with a massive garbage strike. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) works as a party clown and lives with his somewhat infirm mother Penny (Frances Conroy). A burgeoning stand-up comic and mentally ill, Arthur suffers from bouts of negative emotions while also dealing with a condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably in social situations. As Gotham City spirals out of control, Arthur also faces a series of unfortunate events that plunge him further into madness and eventually turn him into the Clown Prince of Crime himself-The Joker.
Review: The term “buzz worthy” gets thrown around a lot when it comes to cinema. Inevitably every year there are a handful of films that get people talking. These films tend to gather momentum even before the movie’s release. Director Todd Phillips’ latest film Joker falls squarely into that category. The film has launched a thousand think pieces, and to call it controversial is a massive understatement. Joker also garnered the prestigious Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival last month, something unprecedented for a “comicbook” film.
Well people you can believe the buzz, because Joker is no laughing matter. What it is, is one of the most stunning pieces of cinema I’ve seen in quite some time and hands down the best film of 2019 thus far.
Uncompromising, provocative, and beautifully shot, Joker exemplifies bold filmmaking at its finest. In a film landscape that sports a glut of cookie-cutter, vanilla entertainment, Joker is a spicy cinema meatball, an Apollo Creed right hook to the solar plexus. Todd Phillips has crafted a film that pays homage to dark and gritty Scorsese pieces like Taxi Driver and Mean Streets but feels wholly original and never derivative. A true character study rather than a straight narrative, Joaquin Phoenix has never been better.
I am simply stunned that Phillips, the man who brought audiences The Hangover trilogy, has crafted such a brilliant movie. A hard left turn for the man who directed Old School, Todd Phillips also co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver (The Fighter). It’s certainly a non-traditional narrative, with the focus solely being on the character of Arthur Fleck/Joker. Indeed, Phoenix’s character is in virtually every scene, as the aim is to sit sidecar as we view Arthur’s descent into madness. For all the fuss about the film’s violent nature, there is surprisingly little, although when it does occur it’s decidedly brutal. However, the violence never feels glorified but rather ugly and capricious. I believe that’s by design as Joker is also the very definition of a slow burn, so much so that when the action does kick in, it’s an earned explosion. If I’m being deliberately vague about some of the finer plot points of Joker, it’s only because you’re best served by going into this film cold.
From a craftsmanship standpoint, Phillips’ film succeeds on every level. Every shot has purpose and significance. Lawrence Sher’s cinematography brings Gotham City to life. The Dark Knight’s home city has always been an analog for NYC and never has that felt more the case here. Through Phillips’ distinct perspective, Sher’s cinematography shows a city that evokes Hell rather than a traditional urban landscape. Dark, dismal, and dirty, you can almost smell the rancid and rotten nature of Gotham, a nature that only wealthy, narcissistic, and entitled elites like Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) feel they can cure. Phillips and Sher employ an effective yellow palette where other colors seem dim and muted. Gotham is in and of itself a character in Joker, and the city’s de-evolution mimics Arthur’s spiral into madness. Sher and Phillips also ensure that the audience is fully immersed in that madness, utilizing multiple closeups of our title character. You can’t look away because the camera won’t let you.
I also cannot say enough about Hildur Guoanadottir’s score. A classically trained cellist from Iceland, her composition is flawless. Alternately foreboding, triumphant, and harrowing, Guoanadottir’s score is riveting from the opening note to the final crescendo. It dovetails nicely with Phillips’ vision. The film is inexplicably tied up with the music and gives Hans Zimmer a run for his money. What few songs are used in Joker are done with masterful effect particularly “Rock ‘N’ Roll (Part 2)” by Gary Glitter and “White Room” by Cream in the closing moments.
The undefeated champion of this film however is Joaquin Phoenix. His portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime is unlike anything you’ve ever witnessed. Phoenix is one of the great actors of our generation, but with Joker he’s on another level. Whether it’s Phoenix’s uncontrollable laugh that runs the gamut from a half-sob to a borderline hysterical guffaw, his damn near emaciated body, or his cringe worthy attempts at standup comedy, you as an audience member are fully invested in this character. You root for Phoenix’s Arthur, but not for him to unleash a rage-filled explosion of destruction and violence. Rather you root for him NOT to snap, as his attachments to humanity are methodically pulled apart one by one. Phoenix delivers a stark and harrowing portrayal of mental illness, of a man physically and emotionally beat down by society. It’s not just one of the best performances of 2019. It’s one of the best performances in the history of cinema. Full stop.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, there’s been a distinct amount of controversy surrounding Joker. People are already weaponizing it for their politics on both sides. I could choose to ignore it, yet I feel it would be a disservice to the film without addressing the 500 pound Smilex gas canister in the room. The issues of gun control, monetary disenfranchisement, incel culture, and a myriad of others are all at the heart of this film. Moreover, the media and the aforementioned think pieces have made much of Joker being a dangerous film where Phoenix’s Arthur is portrayed as a sympathetic character. But I believe it’s possible to be sympathetic (and even to a degree empathetic) to a character AND not agree with a character’s actions. Also the fact that people are having conversations about these topics indicates how great of a film Joker actually is. Is Phillips’ film provocative? Absolutely. Dangerous? Hardly. I could go into more depth here but I believe I’ll save that for a separate article.
If anything Todd Phillips’ Joker is a scathing indictment of the mental health crisis prevalent in our world today. We turn a blind eye to their suffering to the point where they don’t even feel they exist, as Arthur states in the film. Well Phoenix and Phillips don’t allow you to turn away. They force you to look it full in the face in all its horrifying glory. Joker makes you see the consequences of marginalizing those people to deadly effect.
Joker is by no means a happy film. In fact as my friend Tim said, “It made me feel awful.” That statement is valid, accurate, and I believe the point of Joker. It’s meant to make you uncomfortable, to challenge you, even to haunt you. Great cinema causes you to do that and Joker absolutely falls into this category. It’s a film so complex and with so many layers it demands repeat viewings. I can’t envision seeing a better film or a more captivating acting performance in 2019. Joker may be a difficult watch but also a necessary one. It’s a stunning and masterful piece of cinema that should not be missed.
My rating System:
0-1 God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad
2 Straight Garbage
4 Sub Par
8 Very Good
10 A Must See
You can follow me on Twitter at CorryeAtTheMovies @VanCorrye