Kennedy London, Associate Arts & Entertainment Editor
Considering we are talking about one of the deadliest and psychotic villains that has been created, Todd Phillips’ film “Joker” was meant to be made. With all of the controversy surrounding the film about how dangerous it can be to the audience and how it can influence potential violence, the main question of “Is the film good?” has gotten lost.
Well, not only are the concerns of “Joker” being a danger to the public are completely overblown, it ends up being a very good movie.
“Joker” is visceral, dark, nihilistic and unsettling examination of the downward spiral of one man. There is no sense of hope or expectation of improvement — this is a rabbit hole of despair. It is a dark film from the opening to when the credits roll and you are locked onto the screen from the opening to the end credits.
“Joker” takes place in 1981 Gotham City where Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, makes a gradual transformation into the Joker due to his declining mental health, certain revelations about his life, his failed stand-up comedian attempts, and his relations with the people around him, especially the Wayne family.
Let’s start with the obvious: Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely outstanding as Arthur Fleck. Arthur is disturbed, enraged, sinister, demoralized, creepy, and ultimately a broken man ready to unleash his rage upon the city of Gotham. Phoenix plays Arthur with as much focus and insanity as the character needs in order for his eventual transition into the Joker to be believable. It is honestly spellbinding to watch Phoenix act out Arthur’s various outbursts of laughter, anger, cynicism, and violence.
The supporting cast, including Robert De Niro as talk show host Murray Franklin, Zazie Beetz as Arthur’s neighbor Sophie Dumond, and Brett Cullen as billionaire Thomas Wayne, are all great. As essential as some of these characters may be, they never overshadow the presence of Phoenix. However, De Niro is the standout supporting performance as the funny and snarky Franklin.
Lawrence Sher’s cinematography is gritty, absorbing, atmospheric and transport you into the dirty and grim environment of Gotham. Colors leap from the screen, the shadows and darkness create a gloomy mood during nighttime scenes, and the elements such as smoke and light invade the screen. The cinematography genuinely evokes a sense of eerie dread and wraps you into the story of Arthur.
Hildur Guðnadóttir’s musical score is haunting, antagonistic, mesmerizing, and gets you into the mood of the film and the conscious of Arthur. It’s a type of melancholy that permeates the air and affects the viewer in order to put them in the scene. The score really sticks in your mind with how menacing it is.
Todd Phillips’ direction is impressive. He not only makes sure that Arthur’s transformation is gradual; he also understands the relationship Arthur has with Gotham. Gotham is a depressing place to live for the middle and lower classes and how Arthur changes because of it & vise versa is successfully portrayed in “Joker”.
There is one major flaw with “Joker” and that is the tackling of the major themes. “Joker” has a lot on its plate and wants to speak on everything within the two hour runtime. These themes include mental health, social divide, and justification of violence.
Instead of examining these themes more thoroughly, “Joker” really wants you to care about what it’s talking about, but it ends up being not as compelling as it should have been and too heavy-handed sometimes.
Scenes like the one between Arthur and Franklin where Arthur voices his grievances end up sounding like a list of excuses due to the fact that it’s too on the nose. The majority of themes, while they work on the surface level and allow for some conversation outside of the film, do not reach their potential in the film.
If there is one theme that excels is the justification of violence. Towards the beginning of the film, you understand Arthur’s perspective and even have some sympathy for him. However, as his actions become more violent and brutal, you take a quick step back and understand whatever valid feelings he had become tainted once he starts murdering people.
The violence in “Joker” is blunt, cold, brutal, and never loses its power. You want to root for Arthur, but you do not want to root for the Joker. The film does not side with the Joker in his violent escapades, it just wants to sit with them and reflect on how did Arthur get to this point. The last act especially is an absolute whirlwind.
Overall, “Joker” succeeds in its dark and moody character study of Arthur Fleck. Joaquin Phoenix delivers one of the best performances of 2019. While it could have been better thematically, it still stands as a visceral experience.