Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz & Brett Cullen
Directed by: Todd Phillips
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Release Date: October 2019
Running Time: 122 mins
Synopsis: Forever alone in a crowd, failed comedian Arthur Fleck seeks connection as he walks the streets of Gotham City. Arthur wears two masks — the one he paints for his day job as a clown, and the guise he projects in a futile attempt to feel like he’s part of the world around him. Isolated, bullied and disregarded by society, Fleck begins a slow descent into madness as he transforms into the criminal mastermind known as the Joker.
When the teaser trailer for Joker came out in April 2019, it had a massive cultural impact – not only raising awareness for the movie, but also inspiring a legion of parodies (my personal favourite is SNL’s Grouch). For me, the trailer was simply a masterpiece in storytelling. I re-watched it multiple times and enjoyed the mix of unsettling imagery against Jimmy Durante’s “Smile”; it was so atmospheric and effectively worked on its own as a short film. While most were excited to see the feature-length version of the movie later that year, I actively put it off because I was afraid that it would not live up to the expectations set by the trailer. After much persuasion from my buddy Alfie at Alfie’s Profane Film Reviews, I eventually sat down to watch the film itself to see whether it could add anything to the trailer.
First off, Joaquin Phoenix delivers a career-defining performance here and quite rightly won ‘Best Actor’ at the Oscars that year. The film truly feels like a descent into madness as society grinds Arthur Fleck down until all that is left is the criminally insane clown. Todd Phillips’ take on the Joker is much more grounded than any other iteration seen before; there’s no Batman here and 1980s Gotham is frighteningly reminiscent of our own world. The nihilistic anti-social attitude on the streets and the contempt for the rich aren’t that much removed from today’s mood; the protests inspired by Joker’s slaying of three Wayne Industries employees (read: Wall Street Bankers) is eerily plausible, as evidenced by the Capitol Riots in 2021, two years after the movie came out. Phillips’ film is so scary because it feels like the origin story of a high-school shooter, not the Joker who sprays deadly laughing gas at people. While Heath Ledger might be the best representation of the Joker, Phoenix might be the most realistic.
Setting it during the 1980s immediately gives the film a distinctive atmosphere, and strengthens its connection to the two Martin Scorsese films it homages; Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. The city feels just as much of a character in the film as Fleck, and Todd Phillips evokes a sense of time and place with the cinematography. While the film uses characters that originated in the Batman comics, I would hesitate to call it a ‘comic book movie’ in the traditional sense; there is no hero in this tale and none of the typical superhero trappings. Even Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy held onto some of the more implausible elements of the genre, but Phillips’ story plays it completely straight. Obviously, there is the assumption that the orphaned Bruce Wayne will eventually go on to become the Batman of this universe, but equally, the film could stand alone from that.
I was surprised at how much the Waynes were featured in the film, but I enjoyed the subversive take on the characters. Typically presented as the hardworking and innocent father of Bruce in most adaptations, Thomas Wayne is vilified in this version of the story as a potential womaniser and power-driven millionaire. Phillips keeps things ambiguous, but there is every suggestion that Wayne’s activities directly led to the creation of Joker, and his subsequent death at the hands of rioters. As a standalone movie, Joker has the ability to break continuity and tell stories that wouldn’t be part of a mainstream Batman franchise. The scene where Fleck goes to Wayne Manor and meets with Bruce is one of the most captivating sequences in the film; obviously foreshadowing a hypothetical future between the two, and I found myself impressed by Dante Pereira-Olson as a young Bruce Wayne and how he managed to project so much of the character in such a short space of time.
One sequence that didn’t quite work for me was the side-plot involving Zazie Beetz as Arthur’s neighbour and love interest. Beetz is a great actress, but the role seemed rather unnecessary to the overall plot of the film – and the twist felt telegraphed from the outset. Obviously, Fleck is an unreliable narrator and many times during the film you are made to question the realities of what you’ve seen, but I chose to believe that all of the events we saw transpired as we saw them, although that might be up for debate.
As mentioned before, Joker naturally invites comparisons to the Scorsese movies, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy – something it doesn’t appear to shy away from given the casting of Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin. There is no denying that Joker would not exist if it were not for those films, and while at times it feels like Phillips is erring too close to mimicry of Scorsese at times, Phoenix’s performance and the way he slowly unravels prevents the film from feeling like a total carbon copy of those classics.
Joker’s loose relationship with the DC Universe is a double-edged sword at times because it mischievously subverts viewer expectations about what a Joker movie should be multiple times, but still maintains a connection with the source material. Phoenix’s performance is incredible, there’s no denying that, but is it the Joker? Both Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger and even Caesar Romero, delivered performances that felt like the Joker from the comics, but Phoenix’s more subdued and realistic take lacks the flamboyance typically associated with the clown prince of crime. Sure, there’s brief glimpses of the Joker here and there, such as when he appears on the Murray Franklin show, or after he brutally murders one colleague and lets another one go, but we don’t get to spend enough time with the fully-formed version of the character to get a grip on Phoenix’s take. Hopefully, the recently-announced sequel Joker: Folie à Deux will give us more insight into the character.
The Joker trailer remains one of the best trailers I have ever seen, and I am happy to say that watching the full film doesn’t diminish that in the slightest. Todd Phillips’ film expands upon Arthur Fleck’s breakdown at a perfect pace, fleshing out those key scenes glimpsed at in the trailer without losing any of the haunted beauty. A daring reinterpretation of a familiar story, Joker is a fascinating study of mental illness and the cold, harsh realities of society’s treatment of the vulnerable. Striking, bold and uncomfortable, Joker stands out because it turns the four-colour panels from the comics into a dreary reflection of our own world and how we as a society are guilty of creating our own villains. DC Comics should stick to making these standalone, experimental movies based upon their properties as they are much more enjoyable than their attempts to recreate the successes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.