MOVIE REVIEW — Joker
Send in the Clown (Prince of Crime) ★★★★1/2
If you told me last year that there would not only be a Joker origin movie, but also that it would be one of the best films of the year, I would have laughed (not as crazy sounding as Joaquin, but still). Here we are, at the beginning of October and Todd Philips’ Joker has arrived, and with it, an insane amount of *expected* controversy. While some are critiquing the film’s lack of a moral compass, representation of violence, and “heroic” portrayal of a madman, Joker is a realistic, risk-taking character study of a man suffering from a decreasing mental state, that puts an emphasis on my mental illness is not a joke. To those expecting or wanting to see a two hour blood-soaked escalation of action scenes leading to the birth of Batman’s arch nemesis should prepare themselves for nothing of that nature. Yes this is a Joker origin film, and yes Gotham City and the Wayne family are featured, but this is not your typical comic book fare. This is no doubt going to be the most polarizing film of the year, possibly even the next few years, I absolutely loved this film.
In Joker, a failed clown-for-hire/stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) faces down the barrel of madness as his life becomes an ever-growing tragedy, or in his eyes, a comedy. Following a series of continually horrible experiences, Arthur slowly fades as the Joker takes over his entire life, leading to his rise as the fabled Clown Prince of Crime. From his humble begins as a street clown, Arthur is left alone is his own world, isolated from society as they either walk him by or literally beat him to a pulp without a care. To say that there is sympathy shown to the character of Arthur Fleck in throughout the first half of the film would be a correct statement, but to say that by the end, it is still trying to get you to sympathize or root for him as he devolves into a sadistic, evil person is a complete farce. Joaquin Phoenix elevates this from being some sub-standard piece, into something that feels like a harsh yet realistic look at how someone like the Joker could come to exist in the real world today. Despite the film taking place in 1981 within the fictional Gotham City, the political subtext in regards to living conditions and the class divide feel incredibly on point for the political climate within the U.S. in 2019.
One aspect that was unexpected, yet makes total sense upon reevaluation is the bits of (very dark) comedy littered within this film. With Phillips’ background in comedy with films like The Hangover series, it seemed jarring when it was first announced that he would be helming this project, and while he certainly is no Martin Scorsese, his comedic touches are sprinkled about in a few memorable scenes. Again, Joaquin excels here, delivering the comedic points excellently, while also still coming off as a complete maniac. Speaking on Scorsese, with him originally acting as a producer for the film, the inspiration and direct callbacks to his films can be seen clear as day here, namely with Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. With characters doing the infamous Travis Bickle finger guns a few times in Joker, even to those who are not as well-versed in Scorsese’s filmography, the reference should be quite clear.
With the direction of the film not being awards-worthy or anything groundbreaking, two areas where the film delivers in spades is in its breathtaking cinematography and chilling musical score. Lawrence Sher (Godzilla: King of the Monsters, The Hangover) was the director of photography for Joker, and the work he does here is definitely some of the best looking visual work of the year. He knows exactly how to shoot Arthur as he dissolves into a shell of his former self as the Joker persona overtakes him, reveling in the delusions of a madman. Seriously, there are quite a number of truly beautiful shots/scenes throughout the film, accompanied by *potentially* my favorite score this year (big fan of the music in Ad Astra, but it still has yet to be released anywhere and I really need to listen to it some more). Composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir (Chernobyl, Mary Magdalene) the original score never overshadows the actual film on-screen, only adding to the atmosphere throughout. The soundtrack is also filled with some great music cues from Frank Sinatra’s Send in the Clowns and That’s Life to Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll, Pt.2, which has to be one of the most unexpected musical pieces to appear in a movie in a while, at least for me.
When looking back at Joker in 10 years, it will be a film some look back on as being underrated and others seeing it as a film that should be barred for its portrayal of criminal violence through the lens of the protagonist. However the fact remains, this is a fantastically crafted film, that should never have even existed in the first place. Outside of the direction, everything about this movie works to an extreme tee. The instantly iconic performance from Joaquin, backed up with solid supporting showings from the wonderful Zazie Beetz, Brett Cullen, and a perfectly cast Robert De Niro, as well as some of the most beautifully shot cinematography and beautifully composed music all help elevate this from being some easily forgettable, mess of a film masquerading as an award season film, *cough cough The Goldfinch*. Joker is one of the best films of 2019, and is without shadow of a doubt, one of the best comic book films to date.
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