‘Joker’ // Film Review: A Character Study of Madness

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, and Frances Conroy

Director: Todd Phillips

Writers: Todd Phillips and Scott Silvers

Runtime: 122 Minutes

Studio: Waner Bros. Pictures

MPAA Rating: Rated R for Strong Bloody Violence, Disturbing Behavior, Language and Brief Sexual Images

When I looked back to the time when the announcement of an R-rated standalone Joker origin story without Batman, it sounded like a stupid idea for the studio to think this was a good plan. Not every supervillain needs to have its story told since it can be a little mysterious. A film like Joker is a risk to come out from DC Comics without turning heads. But since it recently became the subject of controversy all over the place for unnecessary reasons, maybe it shouldn’t be taken a film based on a fictional character seriously.

What’s the Story: A failed stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) encounters a group of criminals dressed up as clowns wandering on the streets of Gotham City. Isolated by his society, Fleck slowly descends into madness and transforms into a criminal mastermind known as the Joker.

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (2019)

The Joker is practically the most iconic comic book villain of all time, and he’s my personal favorite. Many portrayed the character to great effect for decades. Heath Ledger still holds a special place in my heart for his Oscar-winning performance in The Dark Knight. But strangely enough, this wasn’t one of my most anticipated movies of the year. Shocking, right? Just the idea of having a movie that’s set outside of the DCEU sounded weird. Though if it’s enough to make everyone forgot about Jared Leto’s terrible performance in Suicide Squad, then it has the right to proceed.

Then the trailers started to come out online, and it increased my anticipation a little bit. Once it got great word of mouth from the 76th Venice International Film Festival, where it surprised everyone when it won the Golden Lion, maybe this might turn out to be entertaining after all. Throughout the film, you know Joker will be polarizing that will be divided amongst everybody. But for me, I loved it for how chilling it turned out to be.

Let me first talk about Phoenix’s performance as Arthur/ Joker, because this is what you call a phenomenal performance. He’s already a terrific actor when a good script comes his way, but in here, Phoenix completely gets lost in this role when you just see this man just wanting to make people laugh. Nearly every single frame he’s in had my attention fully. Even when he’s uncontrollably laughing, it makes you cringe in a good way. As you watch what he’s been going through and why he doesn’t always feel happy, the point of understanding what he becomes is believable while also having a sense of being scared. If this doesn’t get award consideration, especially from the Oscars, someone’s going to be in trouble.

Just know that the film doesn’t follow what happened in the comics, which didn’t bother me when it was going a different route with the story. Director Todd Phillips and his co-writer Scott Silver (8 Mile, The Fighter) handled this as if the goal was to have Joker not be a typical comic book movie with a bunch of CGI and explosions. What this turns out to be is a gritty drama set in Gotham City. And you can see that this was heavenly inspired by classic Martin Scorsese films like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy (Scorsese was formerly going to executive produce the film).

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (2019)

On a technical level, it succeeded my expectations. Phillips has always been a director known for a lot of comedies in his career, including the one great movie in The Hangover trilogy. But there was some worry since it hasn’t made a good movie in about ten years. His style that he puts to this shows that he can helm something dirty and pretty dim in the world’s setting. The cinematography from Lawerence Sher is beautifully shot, Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score sets the mood right when the scene calls for it, and the production design of making everything look like it takes place in1981 shouldn’t be ignored for a single second.

The tone is straightforward dark, and it rightfully earns to be rated R. The main character is known for being evil, so nobody should expect this to be action-packed and fun the entire time. This goes out of its way to being distributed in unexpected ways with the violence. Nothing is ruined with it calls for some dark comedy, and it has you laughing uncomfortably. For someone that doesn’t like that kind of stuff, I needed to catch my breath after it was over and contemplate life.

As for any problems that come to mind, it does get a little bit slow around the second act. A slow burn this may be, it was needed. Besides that, I expected a bit more from Robert De Niro as a popular talk show host named Murray Fraklin. You can say that about the rest of the supporting cast, but this is easily Phoenix’s film.

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (2019)

With the negativity the film has gotten recently, the world can be a terrible place sometimes, and we live in that state of fear whenever anything unfortunate happens when we hear it on the news or social media. With its commentary on mental illness and violence, is the Joker the kind of character to root for? No, he’s an antagonist that has always been that way. It’s a little like not feeling sympathy for Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in Nightcrawler as what he tends to do may seem unethical. Not every person with a mental illness will likely cause harm in the outside world. But it really doesn’t help when the media honestly thinks this film will play a big part in ensuring people into chaos. That’s my soapbox moment.

For a film that I didn’t think was going to enjoy in the first place, it ended up being a memorable experience that probably can’t be replicated. Joker is simply captivating. It’s engaging, it’s darkly humorous, and disturbing to the point of feeling uneasy when it’s over. This is not your typical comic book movie for a great character like this to be portrayed. Phoenix delivers one of the best performances I’ve seen all year. This is a film that I’m probably going to continue thinking about for the next couple of days.

Grade: A-

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