The recent ‘JOKER’ movie starring Joaquin Phoenix, directed by Todd Phillips is a brilliant re-telling of the classic Batman villain's origin story. It serves as not only a great comic-book movie but excellent cinematic work, overall.
The cinematography, sound, writing and an amazing performance on behalf of Mr. Phoenix come together for what is one of the best movies of the year. ‘JOKER’ is not your typical, comic book blockbuster beholden to cartoonish cliches. Rather, it is a dark and uncompromising character study of a broken man struggling with mental illness whose life is marred by childhood neglect, domestic abuse, and tragedy that drive him to murder and violence.
In this telling of the clown prince of crime’s origin story, we learn that the Joker’s real name is Arthur Fleck. He is despondent and malnourished man working as a clown for hire to make ends meet in Gotham. Joker’s iconic tendency for hysterical laughter is reimagined as a real medical condition as the result of brain trauma. It is never outright stated in the movie, but the real condition is known as Pseudobulbar affect in which individuals affected break out into uncontrollable fits of laughter or crying. Arthur is often ostracized for this and in one instance it gets him mugged by three men who believe it to be him mocking them.
The grimness of Arthur’s life is compounded through his on-screen struggles with mental illness that feel all too real. He attends therapy sessions that he feels are going nowhere and is on seven medications that he expresses do not help; only to have the city of Gotham pull the funding for the social services that provide his therapy and medication. This, along with a series of other unfortunate circumstances is what leads Arthur Fleck down his descent toward violence and murder.
While many critics claim this less comical portrayal of the Joker somehow glorifies or justifies the character’s violent actions, I find it is the movie's willingness to look for the humanity in the character that makes it so memorable.
The film does not justify the abhorrent deeds the Joker ends up committing. The movie depicts them for what they are, heinous crimes. It asks the hard questions by challenging the audience’s preconceived notions of what a super villain should be. The reality of such a character is not a mustache-twirling man who is evil just for the sake of being evil. Before he became the Joker, Arthur Fleck was simply another man down on his luck that wanted to make people smile but was pushed too far by the misfortune and tragedy in his own life.
The movie is not suggesting that this makes the Joker’s acts of evil okay, rather by challenging its audience to search for humanity in Joker’s former self, it urges people to meet others with compassion and understanding in our day to day lives. Because as the movie shows, we never know what someone is dealing with. And all it takes is just one bad day to push someone toward the wrong path in life.
While the cinematography and writing are exceptional, I found the marriage of the score and Phoenix’s performance is what sells the emotional scenes of the movie. The ‘Bathroom Dance’ theme composed by cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir is a masterpiece of composition. I don’t want to give too much away but the scene in which the groaning of Hildur’s cello and the swirling orchestra of the track play against Phoenix’s performance is haunting. The way it is able to amplify the gravity of the scene and convey the inner turmoil of Phoenix’s character is a beautiful work of cinema.
All in all, ‘JOKER’ is an excellent movie. It’s pacing is top-notch and does a good job of making Arthur Fleck’s gradual transformation into the Joker feel genuine and compelling. The scenes are impactful and gritty, the screenplay and writing are amazing and the scoring is nothing short of masterful. It is an enthralling and visceral viewing experience in what has to be one of my favorite performances from Joaquin Phoenix yet.