Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
When I first heard about Co-Writer/Director Todd Phillips developing a Joker origin film for adults, I scoffed and wrote it off as a horrendous idea. Did we really need a film chronicling the rise of Batman’s greatest villain? Had Heath Ledger not already given us the definitive cinematic portrayal of the character? How could Joaquin Phoenix even fathom the idea that he could live up to that legendary, Oscar-winning performance? Fast-forward to earlier this year, where Joker catapulted to the top of my most anticipated films list after watching and re-watching that spectacular Teaser Trailer. It shook me right through to my bones. And now, nearly a month after seeing the Film at TIFF, I cannot stop thinking about Joker.
That might sound like the hyperbolic rantings of a Batman fanboy. But Joker is one of the rare cases where the hype and excitement were warranted and might actually be underplaying just how great the Film is. Phillips has composed a bold, unflinching portrait of a mentally unstable retail clown/stand-up comedian named Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), driven to violence and anarchy after suffering a number of defeats and failings. Yes, there is initially some sympathy towards Fleck and his miserable existence. But as he continues to grow unhinged and more psychologically damaged, Phillips snaps us back into reality (with the aid of some shockingly brutal violence) and makes us sorry for ever feeling any remorse or sadness towards this horrible individual destined to become The Joker. What’s more, he and Co-Writer Scott Silver add in subtext about Classism and how society fails those who need help the most. It is a delicate balancing act they do not always get right as some have been unfairly harping on. But the daring chances they take easily make Joker unlike any post-modern Comic Book film released in the past ten years. And they deserve credit for that reason alone.
I just wish Phillips and Silver did not lean into so many Batman-isms. We know from the on-set that the Film is set in the Batman universe, but it seems to stop dead in its tracks every time it feels the need to remind us. Why bother setting out to make a film like Joker if you are just going to retread on elements and moments that have already been done before?
It is not just the Script that sets Joker apart from its brethren – the look and feel do an absolutely magnificent job of doing that practically by themselves. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher effectively captures a Martin Scorsese-inspired 1970s/1980s aesthetic by lighting nearly every scene with a yellow and orange hew. It gives the picture a washed out look that lends to its gritty, nihilistic sensibilities and steers clear of the typical gothic feel of every Batman film. You can practically smell the stench and grime coming off the sets. The Score by Hildur Guðnadóttir is even better, knowing exactly when to be lighter and when to be loud, booming and intense. It pierces your ears in downright terrifying ways. I was not familiar with Guðnadóttir’s work prior to Joker, but the way her Score leans into the psychological underpinnings of the character makes it so that you will not easily forget her anytime soon.
The supporting performances by Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy and to a lesser extent, Brett Cullen, are all well done. But they only impact the Film in minor ways, each one standing in the long shadow cast by Phoenix. He is absolutely electrifying as Fleck – and later as Joker – commanding the screen with a deranged precision that is just as compelling as it is deeply-disturbing. His work here is haunting and searing, adding nuances and ticks to every scene. He commits to each and every moment recklessly whether he is dancing and swaying to songs only he can hear or laughing maniacally and uncontrollably at whatever is playing out in front of him. Phoenix has always been an intense performer, and his work here is captivating and brilliant. The strength and power of his performance more than makes up for any of the Film’s shortcomings.
Joker is a bold and deliberately unconventional Comic Book film that will make you rethink what is possible within the genre. Phillips and his team have created an intimate and deeply-disturbing character piece, anchored by an astonishing Oscar-worthy performance by Phoenix, that continues to evoke visceral reactions from everyone who watches it. This is one film you do not want to miss.
Warner Bros. Pictures Canada release JOKER on Friday, October 4, 2019.