Movie Review: Joker
An alluring recreation of a DC Comics villain, done so meticulously that it’s a little mad
Do a vegan actor and a barbaric character sound like a Joker to you? Right, I couldn’t believe my ears, either. I only got to know that Joaquin Phoenix is a long-time vegan after watching his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel’s show. In which, Kimmel drew a slew of backfires from fans because of the way he ridiculed Phoenix and aired a behind-the-scenes clip showing Phoenix losing his cool.
Nonetheless, despite unpleasantly surprised and embarrassed, Phoenix immediately apologized to the audience, saying “sorry that you guys have to watch this”. Boo, Kimmel. That’s a rather distasteful way to treat a guest on your show.
Rude hosts aside, Joker was easily one of my most anticipated films of 2019, along with other colossal titles, which unsurprisingly, includes Avengers: Endgame. Yet, there are aspects that clearly differentiate Joker from them. Instead of seeing the return of familiar faces or working within a familiar plot framework, Joker is one true wild card. If any, the trailers suggest that the movie does not give a nod nor abides to any tried-and-true rules set by recent superhero films. Especially DCEU flicks.
With the absence of any traces of superhuman strength, and perhaps any masked superhero, the trailers might come as a little boring to some audience. But there’s just something ever so special with a laughing Arthur Fleck in the dark metro, void of any clear indication of his emotion(s). Was he thrilled? Sad? In rage? The guess went on and on. Well, so how does Todd Phillips’ take on the iconic DC villain fare out? Get ready to smile and put on a happy face.
Because right off the bat, Joker gives an overwhelming experience, even seconds into the film. I mean, how is it possible that everything on the screen looks so polished? Every backdrop, every costume, and every prop was captured, easily in the most flattering of ways, finished in a rich and vibrant color palette nonetheless. Todd Phillips knew very well… In fact, too well, of what looks good (read: artistic) on screen, and what kind of message he wanted to convey in each of them.
And hence, those scenes possess such a varying aspect of dynamics that it literally awakens your sixth sense of feeling something that’s not really there. From the dark, wet and nasty dump site that seemingly exudes an overpowering rotten smell, until that steep staircase leading to Arthur’s residence that feels impossible to climb, something from each scene carries a strong message that will eventually piece up and solidify the whole story. And I don’t think that it was by coincidence that quite a number of other scene locations were disturbingly small and invoked claustrophobia.
To put it into a bigger picture, those are examples of world-building efforts at their best. Gotham City, as re-imagined by Todd Phillips feels exceptionally realistic and relevant, as there’s no doubt that most of the scenes were shot at actual locations. And yet, they were tweaked and recreated so well that the aesthetics made the city one that is worth fantasizing.
None of that matters if the film doesn’t have a compelling story to tell. To which, Joker has yet again scored rather highly in that aspect. With a plot that constantly kept me hypothesizing of what was actually happening and what will come next, it’s hard not to fall in love with Joker in the first two acts. The transformation phase is the most gripping one yet, as that is the period of time in which you will have the least idea of what’s coming next. Having said that, once you realize that Arthur Fleck has fully transformed, the anticipation does begin to taper off, in which, I will elaborate later.
Without going into spoilers, I must say that the way the story writes-off one of Artfleck‘ behavior as his illness is nothing short of genius. Why hasn’t anyone ever thought of that before this film happened? Just a tiny amendment and that minuscule distinction has now become not just the character’s unstoppable sympathy-gainer, but also a perfect window of opportunity for Phoenix to exhibit his deeply-rooted talent.
Meanwhile and elsewhere, blending into Arthur Fleck’s origin story is the impressive level of cohesion between the smaller parts of the plot and the supporting characters. The bond was so strong, that it resembled an inseparable chain, as I failed again and again to identify any ‘loose’ (read: afterthought) characters like Black Manta in Aquaman (2018). In fact, no character was there in the scene for no reason. Even those three pricks that rough up Arthur in the commuter train? Yes, as with everyone else, their roles had been given a much larger impact towards the story than they initially appeared to be.
Does Joker glorify violence as much as what’s been reported lately? Well, yes. And no. Ultimately, it is entirely up to the audience on how they would like to interpret the violence depicted in the film. To me, Joker glorifies smoking much more than any other elements in the movie. I can only report that while violent scenes in Joker are immensely impactful yet surgically precise to invoke a very specific emotion among the audience, they are rather rare and few in between. There are like… three? Or four of such scenes, tops.
Instead, what’s more prevalent in the film is a series of bold twists building up into a major one, about halfway through the plot. This, working in tandem with the ever-so-tense sound effects helped to propel Joker into that psychological thriller territory that no other comic-based flicks have ever done before. The major twist is sufficiently punchy without going overboard, and is certainly one of the biggest highlights of the movie.
Strangely, I am beginning to feel that a lot of elements in Joker played out as strikingly symbolic. Perhaps the most overlooked gem in the film, the audible scores do darken the mood of the scenes considerably. The long extended strokes from a bass violin did wonders for the scenes, but it was the tick-tocking beats, akin to a ticking clock that builds the most tension. It’s almost symbolizing that Arthur Fleck was a ticking time bomb, or it’s running out of time before he morphs completely into Gotham’s crown prince of crime.
His striking red suit isn’t there just for show either, and again, is a symbolic take that one can only realize in-film. It’s the first strong color that you will see after 90 minutes into the film, which undeniably marks the end of the colorless and harrowing life that Arthur Fleck had parted ways with.
Understandably, no review of Joker will ever be complete without exploring the man behind the titular role himself. Joaquin Phoenix is really a diamond in the rough. In a perfectly cut diamond, each of the many facets glitter brilliantly under light, and that’s easily the most appropriate way to describe Phoenix’s many, many faces as Artfleck.
In the intro, the audience was literally shown nothing but a laughing Arthur Fleck for 30 seconds straight, and that scene itself already packs more emotion and acting power than all the casts in Captain Marvel, combined. You can literally feel him descending into madness, one bit at a time, one dance at a time.
During the initial stages, his movements were unnatural and heavily restrained, signaling exhaustion, depression. With eyes glimmering with naivety. Smiles full of torment. Dance moves full of stiffness and discomfort. Words that are constrained by low levels of intelligence. Now watch all that change, bit by bit. Frightening.
As good as all these sound, do not be deceived into thinking that Joker is a movie without any weaknesses. I am actually quite happy that it took me this far to point out perhaps the only one gripe that I have with the film, and it has to do with the final resolve. Because Joker has performed so well from the beginning until moments before the climax happens, I was craving badly for the climax to come with a Bang! (pun intended, for those who have watched).
But soon I came to realize that the finale is not what I assumed it will be, or in fact, how I wanted it to be. It is not as punchy or as capable of setting the whole house on fire as I thought it would have been. Does it dilute the scale of conflict or the degradation towards Gotham City in the end? Certainly not, but with a little more action or scenes that can set my heart racing for one last time before the curtain falls, Joker would have been the perfect narrative for many.
Given the film’s strong message conveyed through violence, Phoenix’s extreme measures to prepare himself for the role (which shows on-screen) and the nature of the plot which can wander off into total ambiguity at various intersections, I am beginning to understand how Joker is such a subject of debate. Though I have to reiterate that the last 15 minutes of the movie might not please you like the first 15 minutes did, to dismiss Joker entirely and missing out on Phoenix’s mind-boggling performance, together with Todd Phillips’ daring story-telling against a Gotham City so beautifully envisioned that it hurts, is just pure madness. — The Film Addict
Originally published at https://www.thefilmaddict.com on October 5, 2019.
Next week, another movie that explored important social themes in an unusual way turns 20. Fight Club’s screenwriter Jim Uhls spoke with Storius, reflecting on the film’s journey and influence, adaptation challenges, fan theories, and his screenwriting techniques.
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