After years of stealing the Dark Knight’s thunder The Joker finally takes center stage in this gritty, simmering origin story from director Todd Philips and brilliant leading man Joaquin Phoenix.
Does it live up to the very high bar set by Nicholson and Ledger?
“Director Todd Phillips “Joker” centers around the iconic arch nemesis and is an original, standalone fictional story not seen before on the big screen. Phillips’ exploration of Arthur Fleck, who is indelibly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, is of a man struggling to find his way in Gotham’s fractured society. A clown-for-hire by day, he aspires to be a stand-up comic at night…but finds the joke always seems to be on him. Caught in a cyclical existence between apathy and cruelty, Arthur makes one bad decision that brings about a chain reaction of escalating events in this gritty character study.”
Joker is an interesting prospect. Let’s take one of pop culture’s greatest villains, a true agent of chaos, and take a deep dive character study into what drives a man to become a harlequin comic book villain. The problem always being does a definitive origin story takes away from his mystique (much like the horrible Wolverine Origins), and then does that backstory gives us too much justification and sympathy for a character that by all rights is pure evil. We don’t want to have Batman wailing on Joker and have a reaction of “but his childhood!”. It’s a fine line.
With a foundation of abuse, violence, mental health and being abandoned by the system you’ll feel sorry for Arthur. That stark depression, having to try and wear a mask of “normal” when you are far from it. We’ve all been there to varying degrees. Of course, we always reach that point. The jumping off point. Much like watching a serial killer doco where you can’t justify actions any longer. When he crosses that line, and finally becomes that mythic Joker it will give you chills. You will reel back. There’s nothing that can justify any longer. Yet.. you you’re still deep down rooting for him and you’ll feel guilty about it.
Joker is a dark, intense and gripping slow burn. For an hour and half things will slowly flicker, smoulder and spark until we reach that final act where half the damn city burns down and I loved every darn second of it. That fiery crescendo will leave you still in your chair, heart racing as the credits roll. The violence, when it hits, is stark and harsh. Nothing is stylised and its confronting.
Those that hold Ledger’s Joker near and dear, fear not. Phoenix plays this to perfection. Gaunt and almost unsettlingly thin he embodies Joker frighteningly well as he evolves from his frail and meek foundations up to a damn near force of nature full of assurance and swagger as the film closes. This is an Oscar level performance, no doubt. His portrayal of depression, desperation is haunting and painful to watch. I can still feel that sadness in his eyes.
Visually the early 80’s urban grime is striking to behold with brilliant and surprising coloured hues. Gotham feels dark, dingy and lived in. A living and breathing city on the absolute brink. From the first scene I could almost smell it. The cinematography feels downright claustrophobic, you can’t look away from what’s happening. You’ll squirm in your seat and feel totally uncomfortable… it’s brilliant. It pairs so perfectly with Phoenix’s performance. As unfortunate as it is, when around someone with Arthur’s mental issues you don’t want to look. You avoid eye contact. Joker gives you no choice. It’s a feeling I haven’t really felt since Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler. You want to look away but it wont let you.
One could strip away every little part of its comic book origins and still be left with brilliant, dark and edgy character study well worth your time. The sprinkling of Batman lore is the enticing carrot that gives a film like this a much wider mainstream crowd. Joker wears its inspiration on its sleeve, profusely invoking Scorsese classics Taxi Driver and Kings of Comedy and may feel a tad derivative but I do take heart in the fact it will push a new audience to a pair of classics.
Joker is a powder keg of a film anchored buy a powerhouse performance from Phoenix. This is the definitive origin tale of a classic character wrapped in relatable social commentary that will stand the test of time.
What did you think? Fire off in the comments with your thoughts