Box office success hasn’t masked critics’ scorn for Warner Bros’ DC output. Once they were the kingpins of comic book movies, only to be dwarfed by Marvel’s epic Cinematic Universe. An attempt to fast-track their own Expanded Universe has been met with mixed results at best. When news that the studio would be producing a Joker origin story, a standalone tale that would not feature Batman, it raised eyebrows to say the least. Martin Scorsese was attached to produce only to drop out early on while Todd Phillips failed to elicit much excitement when announced to direct. The addition of Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role swung the pendulum away from the doubters as did the inclusion of Robert De Niro. Joker was a statement of intent from a studio that was tired of being kicked.
Taking place in 1981, Gotham has lost its way. It’s a city near breaking point with a population on the edge. Meet Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a party clown who feels rejected by society. All he wants to do is make people laugh but unfortunately for Arthur he’s the butt of the joke in the tragedy that is his life. Like most of Gotham, he’s also at breaking point. Just one more push from the edge that will change the fate of the city forever.
The concept alone with Joker is daring and ambitious. To deliver an original standalone film of a popular comic character isn’t usually how it’s done. The final product is bold and challenging, unlike anything we’ve seen from DC. Phillips has scraped the essence of the Joker character and infused it with a social commentary that’s as stimulating as it is terrifying. Arthur hasn’t fell into a vat of acid, nor is his origin a mystery. It’s exposed for all to see with each step of his rebirth carefully laid out.
While there’s sympathy for Arthur in the beginning this doesn’t make Joker a compassionate piece. His life isn’t an excuse for his crimes as he desperately looks to belong in a world that will as soon kick him as step over him. There’s a thin line between where Arthur ends and Joker lives, a line he blurs as he puts on the face paint. Being laughed at it isn’t justification to murder, Joker has always been a part of Arthur that he’s struggled to supress. His snap was always inevitable, he didn’t need a reason, and he didn’t need an excuse, just an opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Phoenix is incredible in the role. It’s a performance that will be talked about for years as he delivers a tragic, chilling and ultimately unnerving performance. His transformation from Arthur into the Joker is exceptional as he radiates a confidence behind the clown makeup. His walk and posture changes with Phoenix developing a frightening magnetism that draws us to him, his dancing enigmatic and distressing. It’s an unpredictable portrayal that creates a tense atmosphere.
Phillips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher work brilliantly to present a Gotham that is in despair. This is a city that’s in desperate need of its Dark Knight, instead it’s a breeding ground for people like Arthur to become villains. Sher’s grim and unflinching tone shows a city that’s been trampled on by austerity’s shoes and scraped off to rot in the gutter. The beautifully unsettling strings of Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score perfectly captures Arthur’s descent (or even ascension) into Joker. It’s sensitive and haunting, minimalist in execution while flawlessly partnering with Phoenix to construct this disturbing character.
Joker is not without its controversy with many sensationalist clickbait headlines looking to drive traffic to their sites. The discourse surrounding it only validates its impact. That its splitting opinion shouldn’t be a negative, a powerful film like this should generate discussion even if part of that conversation is you don’t get what the fuss is about. A strong candidate for film of the year, Joker is as brilliant a watch as it is uncomfortable.