I know, I know. Another ‘Joker’ review. We all need one of those, right? Especially when the internet is choked full of think pieces on mental health and violence and yadayadayada… But hey, y’know what? Deal with it, because ‘Joker’ really is that good. And it’s worth talking about.
With an unforgettable performance from Joaquin Phoenix, fantastical direction from Todd Phillips and a dazzling script, ‘Joker’ isn’t your standard villain origin story, not by any stretch of the imagination…
*Just a heads up, there’s gonna be spoilers ahead*
When we found out there was gonna be a ‘Joker’ movie, all eyebrows were raised. Were we talking Jared Leto kinda Joker, or Heath Ledger kinda Joker? Was it going to be dark? Like, actually dark? And – most importantly – was the movie going to be any good? With superhero fatigue always bubbling under the surface of modern cinema, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was going to be a nail in the coffin of the barely established DC Universe.
Remarkably, this movie proved to be something else entirely. It’s not a standard, tragic villain back story. It’s not a guns blazing, action-packed superhero movie filled with witty one liners every other line. No. What we got with ‘Joker’ is something far more special. We got a piece of art.
It’s a gritty tale of how party clown Arthur Fleck journeys down the darkest path a man can venture; one that’ll leave you with a balloon-shaped hole in your heart when you leave the movie theatre. He suffocates his own mother, he brutally murders his co-worker, he stalks his neighbour… It’s a dark tale. Truly dark. And from the offset the film makes it pretty clear that this isn’t going to be another run of the mill superhero movie. Instead, we got a dark and twisted character study of one of the most beloved/hated villains of all time – and it didn’t hold back any punches.
The violence is super violent. When Arthur killed co-worker Randall, you could feel the theatre wince, taking in a collective breath. He didn’t just stab him, he smashes his head into a pulp while Gary groans, an innocent bystander to the violence. While the film’s received complaints about its overt use of violence, I feel like it makes the movie sing. It’s steeped in realism; portraying a gritty, oh-shit-this-could-actually-happen-IRL view of Gotham city. It wouldn’t have been right if they cut down on the violence – this is Arthur’s story, and it should be showed through Arthur’s gaze.
Having said that, Arthur is an unreliable narrator. The first instance of this is when he imagines being on the Murray Franklin show, being treated kindly by the almost fatherly host (which, as it turns out, has a deeper meaning than we first thought). The next, Arthur is on a whirlwind romance with his neighbour, Sophie (Zazie Beetz). We’re led to believe that she accepts him, warts and all, despite their initial meeting being… awkward, followed by every girl’s dream of being stalked to their workplace. As the film progresses, and Arthur’s mental state deteriorates, we’re shown that – shock horror – the relationship was all in his imagination! Yeah, like, no shit. They never felt real, she never interacted with anyone or anything in the scenes he was imagining, and I mean, it was just totally unrealistic. You stalked me to work? Oh gee, let me drop my panties. Sure. I wish that the film had left the “twist” more ambiguous, rather than showing it via flashbacks and shoving it down our throats.
With that said, that’s my only real issue with the film. Everything else was a masterpiece. The cinematography, especially, was a masterclass in allowing us to connect with Arthur – painting a grim picture of how he deteriorates. Close, tight shots give the film a claustrophobic vibe, representing how Arthur’s world is closing in around him. You feel as if you’re literally experiencing Gotham city through Arthur’s eyes – it’s truly a masterclass on how to make you connect with a character.
For example, we see Arthur climb the endless stairs in the city time and time again, downtrodden and beaten down by the city and its cruel inhabitants. When he finally accepts his cruelty, though – and thrives amongst the chaos he unintentionally created – he dances down the stairs – showing his descent into insanity. It’s a marvellous feat of cinematic storytelling.
I didn’t expect there to be such a Batman-heavy presence in this film, but I was here for it. I expected the odd reference here and there – throwing in that they’re in Gotham, the odd nod to Arkham Asylum – but to have literal characters (other than the Joker, of course), show up in the movie was unexpected. You could practically hear my movie theatre gasp when a young Bruce Wayne met the Joker head to head. And that twist at the end? Perfection.
Sure, we’ve seen Batman’s parents get murdered time and time again, watching those damn pearls clatter against the grimy streets of Gotham almost as many times as poor Uncle Ben’s been murdered – but this time it was different. It was through the Joker’s actions that led to the uprising against Gotham’s elite, and thus leading to the shootings. This time, instead of being mugged for their riches, they’re killed because of their wealth, and, arguably, their greed. The pearls clattered to the ground – but this time, it wasn’t because they were being stolen. It was because the downtrodden of Gotham were rejecting their affluent leaders.
Bruce’s father was also painted in a different light from that we’re used to. Instead of a kind ruler who was brutally snatched away from Gotham city, he was a cruel, apathetic tyrant. These little twists and turns make the movie – which already has a different stance – even more of a unique venture into the realm of Batman.
‘Joker’ truly sets up the need for the character of Batman to exist within the universe – to combat the chaos he’s created.
While the film’s been criticised for allowing the audience to sympathise too much with Arthur’s character – thus opening the floodgates to a million think pieces about the violence in the film and how it depicts mental health – I disagree. As a character study, it works perfectly. From a storytelling perspective, it gives the audience a reason to know why he’s behaving in such a manner. It doesn’t excuse it, of course, nor make him a hero or a sympathetic character – he’s a straight-up, cold-blooded murderer – that’s without a doubt. But it allows us to see why and how he reached the point he did.
Every single actor nails their performance. From the side characters who act as violent thugs, to the doting mother played by Frances Conroy, down to Robert De Niro’s showman – none of them ever miss a beat. Together, they create a truly gritty vision of Gotham city.
Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is what truly steals the show, though. From the way he moves his body to the way he delivers his lines, you truly believe that he is the Joker. From journeying from awkward, introverted failed comic, to a confident yet psychotic murderer, Phoenix never misses a beat. He nails the maniacal laughter – a great origin here, too, brought on from a neurological condition after experiencing child abuse – to the point where it becomes uncomfortable to watch. But that’s the point. This isn’t an easily ingestible movie, one you watch whilst stuffing popcorn into your face. This is a movie to make you think. To make you feel. And Joaquin Phoenix does just that.
For more on the DC Universe, check out my why I think that Zatanna deserves her own DC movie! Or keep your eyes peeled at Screen Streams – where I’ll be doing a rundown of little details you may have missed in ‘Joker’. Turn those notifications on, y’all!
What did you think of ‘Joker’? Does it deserve the high praise of being cinematic art, or did you find it lacking? Let me know in the comments below.
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