Film Review: ‘Joker’

Joaquin Phoenix is the man beneath the clown make-up in Tod Phillip’s Scorsese inspired reinvention of DC’s iconic villain…

Joker (a)

Joaquin Phoenix delivers a powerful performance in Warner Bros. Pictures’ ‘Joker’ (credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Douglas Hodge, Dante Pereira-Olson

Directed by:  Todd Phillips / written by:  Todd Phillips & Scott Silver / 122 minutes

What’s it about?

Grappling with mental illness amidst the crumbling society of Gotham City, a victimised and broken man walks a dark path as he adopts a deranged persona known as ‘Joker’…

In review

After riding a wave of festival focused critical plaudits and finding itself subject to some pre-release controversy (cancelled screenings and increased police presence rising from concerns that the film may incite acts of violence), Warner Bros. Pictures’ Joker, based on the iconic Batman villain, has landed in cinemas.  Featuring an intense and Oscar-worthy performance from Joaquin Phoenix, Joker is much less a traditional “comic book” interpretation of DC’s Clown Prince of Crime and far more a bleak, at times disturbing and often unnerving character study of a man cast aside by society, broken and pushed to the limit and through violent means – pushes back.  As has already been suggested since the film’s inception, Joker finds its roots within the celebrated works of director Martin Scorsese (who at one point was attached to produce) – specifically Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.

Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a loner struggling with mental illness and afflicted by a condition which leads to uncontrollable bouts of laughter (something that may sound silly on the surface but is realised painfully by a startlingly gaunt Phoenix).  Caring for his mother (played by Frances Conroy) and making a meagre living as a sign twirling street clown, Fleck looks to pursue a career in stand-up comedy…but one bad day too many sees the tragic figure consumed by his demons as he transforms himself into the deranged and homicidal persona of ‘Joker’.

Joker is certainly a good piece of filmmaking (captured beautifully by cinematographer Lawrence Sher) and in many ways compelling, unshackled from its comic book origins and unburdened by any requirement to connect to a wider universe, favouring it’s Scorsese inspirations – the character of Fleck very much informed by Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin, perhaps more so than he is by the Joker as we’ve seen in previous iterations.  Director Todd Phillips (who also co-writes) takes these influences and runs with them, proving his capabilities beyond the crowd-pleasing comedy fare of The Hangover trilogy.  It does, admittedly, make it a tad derivative and adds an element of predictability to proceedings, but at least provides a viable approach to this reinterpretation of a classic comic book foe.  Joker also benefits further from a small but key role for acting legend Robert De Niro (as talk show host Murray Franklin, who Fleck idolises), who certainly brings a heap of gravitas to the project – yet, the film unmistakably thrives on Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal.

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Joaquin Phoenix as the haggard and troubled Arthur Fleck (credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Despite some of its creative laudability, the film is not exactly “fun” in any sense, but nor does it aim to be given the themes it explores (the societal tensions and spiralling crime rate sadly all too relevant) and Fleck’s descent into madness can make for a difficult viewing experience.  Truth be told, Joker cannot match itself to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight which was able to depict a satisfyingly dark and dangerous version of the Joker whilst offering some semblance of hope via Bruce Wayne’s war against crime.  It’s also arguable that the Joker is very much defined by his ‘relationship’ with Batman which makes the approach of Joker, although invigorating, ultimately lacks something without that counterbalance.

Joker does however maintain its links to the comics, the Wayne family playing an important role within the story and the (seemingly early 1980s) Gotham City setting, though a more grounded extrapolation of a crime-ridden New York of the 1970s, a familiar placing.  Fleck’s failure as a comedian is also, of course, an identifiable homage to Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke.

Joker leaves itself open to the interpretation of viewers and is likely to provoke fierce debates about not only the film itself but in its world-view and subjects it doesn’t take lightly – it may not be “entertaining” in a manner most would expect and the Joker is arguably better presented in his battles with the Batman but this is still a bold take on a particular, standalone, version of the character.

The bottom line:  ‘Dark’ in every sense of the word, Joker pulls no punches in its depiction of crime, violence and a society in decline, driven by Joaquin Phoenix’s powerful and mesmerising performance.

Joker is in cinemas now.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

11 thoughts on “Film Review: ‘Joker’

  1. Great review! I’ve been in hospital for an operation recently, so sadly not recovered enough yet to got to the cinema, but hope to go see Joker when I’m better. Sounds like a really good film though.

      • Yes, its very dark subject matter I gather. I’m not sure it can really be compared to other Bat-films with the Joker, as this is more of a stand alone film, but Joaquin Phoenix is such a great actor I’m sure he gave his all for the role. I’m looking foward to seeing it, hopefully ASAP. 🙂

  2. Fantastic review, my good sir. I saw this at the premieres and was completely sold by Phoenix’s performances, with my expectations met and surpassed. There were indeed some elements of predictability but it was all focused around the development of a character, which allowed me to overlook it and not see it as flaws. As the only Joker-centric movie to have been released, it’s hard for me to unbiasedly compare it to the other iterations but I’m inclined to proclaim this iteration of the villain as the best so far! I do hope that any ideas of sequels will not me maintained by Warner bros and company. This needs to remain a stand-alone piece. A bit unfortunate for all the controversy around it but I’m glad that fans speak louder than critics nowadays and hopefully this one takes home an Oscar, if not the movie, at least for Mr. Phoenix!

    • Glad you enjoyed it Lashaan, Joker is certainly best left as a one-off standalone piece. Joaquin Phoenix was fantastic, I do have some reservations about the film though, as I say in the review it’s a great piece of filmmaking but lacks something without having that conflict with the Bat.

      Alas, Jack Nicholson remains my favourite portrayal (and Heath Ledger is a close second) given the impact that first Tim Burton Batman film has on me at such a young age. But as a Scorsese-esque character piece, Joaquin Phoenix excels in this looser take on the character.

  3. Bravo! I plan on seeing the film later this week and was worried about the overkill of praise for Joker would wind up disappointing me. But thanks to your more balanced look I can see the film more objectively.

    I was also put off to this film for a bit thanks to its producer Martin Scorcese and his recent put down of MCU films. It’s fine to have your own opinion but he admitted to not watching many of them and probably dismissed outright some genuine fine examples of cinema so how can make such comments?

    Regardless, Joker sounds like another winner for DC, which frankly needs this win and its success proves that comic book films are great cinema.

    • You’re welcome, it’s still a superb film – I just don’t think I’ll revisit it time and time again like I would with Nolan’s The Dark Knight. It’s worth seeing for Pheonix’s portrayal alone.

      I heard about Scorsese’s put down of the MCU, a lot of ‘prestige’ directors seem to be becoming quite dismissive of comic book films – yes, many of them are like fast food and enjoyable while they last but the genre shouldn’t be written off completely and there are reasons why these characters have endured for decades.

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