Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy
Director: Todd Phillips
When thinking of all the ways that the Joker has been portrayed over the years, we’ve never seen anything quite like what you watch when you see Joker. Whether it was cartoonishly whimsical or unbridled chaos, the main premise of the character has never been explored with the level of depth that Phillips does in his interpretation of the character. I didn’t expect the distancing from the source material and no real superhero elements to be the biggest strength of the film, but doing so allows the movie to exist in its own right and explore a side of humanity and reality that we rarely see done at this level. Combine this with an earth-shattering performance from Phoenix and Joker easily establishes itself as a dark look at mental illness, class distinctions, and the reality that many of the viewers face.
The film follows Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a mentally disturbed man who works as a party clown and laughs uncontrollably in moments of discomfort due to a traumatic brain injury. As the film progresses, we see Arthur’s story chronicled from a man trying to find his place in the world and trying to pursue a career in stand-up comedy, to the care his has for his ailing mother (Conroy), to the fallout of all of his life’s decisions and the new reality that he creates for himself. The leading factor behind Joker being such a well-rounded and complete movie is the leading performance by Phoenix. Not taking into account the preparation that Phoenix put into this role such as losing 50 pounds and watching hours of material to get into the mind of the character, Phoenix matches the necessary tone and intensity that is needed in every scene he’s in. A brilliant blend of dark comedy, mental illness, and pure intensity when it is needed, Phoenix captures the essence of the character and gives potentially the greatest performance of his career. This role has been played by incredibly talented actors in the past, and based on what we were given here, there’s a legitimate argument to be made that he was the best one of all time. While Phoenix’s performance is certainly admirable, he wouldn’t have been able to have given it without Phillips and Scott Silver’s tight script. Instead of making Joker an agent of chaos like in previous adaptations across all mediums, the decision to humanize him and make a flawed anti-hero was wise given that we’ve never seen anything like this from the character before. He’s not an unrelenting force of evil like Hannibal Lecter, he’s a mentally strained man who’s been pushed to his limit and is lashing out at anyone he feels is responsible for this pain. No one watching should condone or advocate the measure he takes, but at the very least you can understand why he goes to such extreme measures to lash out the way he does. As a unique spin on a character we’ve seen many times before, Joker is dark enough to satisfy the desires of his fans, entertaining enough to captivate general audiences, and introspective enough to rival more psychologically thrilling films such as Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter.
Overall, Joker certainly is a polarizing movie and I understand why some people may not rank it as highly as I do, but when you take into consideration the direction of the movie and the decision to humanize the main character, you can see why some people (me included) have such high regard for the film. Quite possibly the most well-rounded interpretation of the character and maybe the most well-acted version of it, Joker will be adored by those who have a background with the subject and admired by those from a purely film-making perspective.
Overall Score: 9/10