Director: Todd Phillips
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz
Synopsis: In Gotham City, mentally-troubled comedian Arthur Fleck is disregarded and mistreated by society. He then embarks on a downward spiral of revolution and bloody crime. This path brings him face-to-face with with his alter-ego: "The Joker".
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
MPAA Rating: R (for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language, and brief sexual images)
Runtime: 2 hr 2 min
Release Date: October 4, 2019
The road down to madness always has a starting point--something that ignites and continues to burn until the last bit of sanity is extinguished.
It's down this dark, dangerous path that Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) finds himself in Todd Phillips' Joker, a standalone origin story on one of the most famous comic book villains ever created. It's a story that's fittingly bleak and brutal, presented in an unnervingly realistic manner that has certainly earned the controversy surrounding it.
And yet, it seems to be just the movie we need right now.
Joker is a fresh take on Gotham's villain, as it focuses exclusively on the interactions and devices that led to the anarchist's creation and desire for revolution and chaos. It dives deep into the recesses of Arthur's mind, showing us why he takes this path while also allowing us to emphasize with his situation and thought processes. And that's the key here--for while no one condones his actions and it's easy to see their immoral nature, one still understands why he takes this path, and that's a major part of why Phillips' film succeeds. Dan Gilroy's 2013 sleeper hit Nightcrawler comes to mind as another film that did this exceptionally well--delivering an outwardly unlikeable antihero but allowing audiences to understand his motivations, even if they don't agree with his actions that follow.
The best aspect of the film is that it's an auteur work---it's safely free of attempting to tie in to DC's current universe and instead operates on its on terms and in its own world. This allows not only for darker, more abrasive material but also for Phillips to create something that feels very unique--something severely lacking in the comic book genre today and something we haven't seen since Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. It's a world that is heavily influenced by Scorsese's 1976 film Taxi Driver, an auteur work of the New Hollywood that similarly explored a man's slow descent into madness as he's encased in a corrupt, gritty world that batters him from all sides. There are references to the film scattered throughout, from the 1970's setting to the dark cinematography and mise-en-scene of a dilapidated city to Arthur's interactions with locals (including the gun to the head gesture) to the presence of Robert De Niro himself--the protagonist of Taxi Driver.
Unlike Taxi Driver though, Joker plays off much like a symphony--one that starts out bleak but with a few positive elements and gradually descends into darkness, fueled by a man's desire for vengeance and respect. Music is a key part of the film, with Arthur frequently seen dancing to oldies and a soundtrack comprised of 1950s songs, such as "Smile" by Nat King Cole. It all plays to the film's art-house approach, shying away from traditional blockbuster fever.
The last word of praise has to be given to Joaquin Phoenix, who delivers a sure-fire Oscar-nominating performance as an awkward outcast who's mentally and physically beaten and abused by society and tries to stand on his feet and gain the respect and honor he believes he deserves. Phoenix is captivating to watch in every scene, and he successfully channels the heartbreak, anger, desire, and madness that drives his character.
Joker has been ridiculed for its nonchalant and careless approach to violence, insomuch that the Aurora, Colorado theater that suffered the mass shooting with the opening of The Dark Knight Rises refused to show the film, and many theaters increased police surveillance during opening weekend screenings. While disturbingly realistic violence (one of the last scenes is one of the most realistic, callous violent scenes I've ever seen) pervades the film, I see it as a cautionary film rather than an irresponsible film, as many critics have negatively stated. It warns us of the limits of the human mind, that it can only endure and stretch so far before snapping, while reminding us again that one has great negative potential when they feel they have nothing else left to lose, and it's these individuals who need our attention the most.
Written by Anthony Watkins, October 18, 2019