Undoubtedly the most controversial film of the year, Todd Phillip’s Joker has finally opened in cinemas after what can only be described as a media frenzy concerning the film’s themes and violent content. Far from any glossy, polished franchise comic book movie, this is a standalone feature that attempts to create a whole new story about Gotham’s infamous Clown Prince of Crime and does a hell of a job in doing so.
Though it might be hard to imagine, the man who brought the world irreverent comedies like The Hangover and Old School, that is writer/director Todd Phillips, has elevated himself to crazy new levels with Joker. The direction of the film is confident and allows for a blend of genres to seamlessly combine, making it part drama, part thriller but arguably it is horror that fits the best description of this film. An eery, haunting, beautifully composed score by Hildur Guðnadóttir is essential to the creation of the film’s tone, really fuelling each scene with heightened tension and helping to choreograph the events unfolding throughout. Joker is certainly not the comedic crime-caper many expected but this aspect is part of what really allows it to flourish.
Given that Martin Scorsese was initially involved as a producer, it’s easy to see why so many parallels can be made between Joker and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. The gritty, 1970s Gotham backdrop is meticulously crafted and superbly complemented by grainy cinematography that feels very much like New York, with the film’s themes of “animals” and “savages” out on the streets seemingly echoing the sentiments of Taxi Driver’s own protagonist Travis Bickle. The script perhaps repeats these sentiments a little too often and suffers from some clunky dialogue at points, though the creation of this tragic and well-rounded origin story for such a famous character deserves a lot of plaudits. Equally, the costume and makeup work designed to create a unique look for the Joker is one that will become truly iconic in years to come much like it did in The Dark Knight, which allows the film to enhance its status as a standalone picture. Arguably the structure of the story and the way it’s told does leave some questions, as perhaps it lingers on certain aspects far more than others and is sometimes guilty of overcomplicating itself and events play out a little bizarrely. However, the plot itself is well crafted enough to really invest the audience in the story and the 117-minute run time absolutely flies by.
Of course, with an actor as gifted as Joaquin Phoenix taking on such an iconic role, the real question about Joker is how his performance will go down in history. It is quite possible that Phoenix may join Heath Ledger as the second person to win an acting award for playing the Joker, given the otherworldly levels he reaches in this film. There are genuinely not enough superlatives to describe his performance, but one that springs to mind is hypnotic. No matter what is happening on-screen, Phoenix commands the audience’s attention at every single turn and effortlessly plunges into the crazed, broken psyche that his character, failed stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck, possesses, with his head-first dive into depravity allowing Phoenix to give a performance that only he seems capable of. The way his eyes and mouth move is strangely entrancing, his laugh will shake you to the core and his loss of weight leaves Fleck’s body looking as sick and twisted as his mind; Phoenix embodies the Joker in a way never before seen and it is astonishing. It would be an absolute travesty if he weren’t to at least receive an Oscar nomination and although he faces stiff competition from Adam Driver, he could yet win Best Actor and deservedly so.
To mention the controversy surrounding the film and why it has arisen, it essentially revolves around the way in which Fleck becomes the Joker and how the film supposedly glorifies violence. People are unhappy that the film shows Fleck turning his back on a society that has done nothing but ignore him as a loner with mental illness and takes murderous retribution, which of course is an issue found particularly in America today. Whilst it’s easy to see how some could take issue with the film, it handles this message much more delicately than has been reported, to the extent that if anyone finding themselves siding with the Joker and wanting to be like him after witnessing his violent killings then that is not the fault of the film. Joker’s crimes do gain him cult status in the world of the film, but it is nasty, visceral and ultimately uncomfortable viewing for the audience that demonstrates horrific violence and gives the film a much more sinister tone than the trailers might suggest. Though it is wishful thinking that people don’t take films like this literally, it seems as if it’s a problem that will continue to plague cinema for years to come.
Regardless of its controversial nature, Joker is a colossal achievement in filmmaking for a director that many had written off before its release. It blends genres brilliantly to create a real horror film that is supported by excellent production values and an outstanding score. Whilst it suffers from a few script issues, overall it’s a fascinating origin story for a truly iconic character. A career-best and Oscar-worthy performance from Joaquin Phoenix is the icing on the cake that brings the whole film together; this film is Phoenix’s world and we’re just living in it. An absolute must-see that may just have the legs to make it through the awards season.
Words by Elliott Jones