By Kevin Muller
The most important thing a film can do is make you feel something. Most of the time, we expect to walk out of the cinema feeling inspired or uplifted. That is fine, but certain films conjure certain feelings within us that are not always positive. The 1978 film, The Deer Hunter, was a bleak look at the mental anguish that war, specifically Vietnam, can have on former soldiers. One of the reasons it won best picture was because it took viewers on a journey where they encountered many types of emotions, mostly ones of horror, despair, and hopelessness. These are the same feelings you will face when watching Todd Phillip’s new film about the origins of the “Prince of Crime.” It isn’t a pleasurable experience, but a well-made one that really dives into the darkness of the character.
In the dirty streets of Gotham City, that is very reminiscent of 1970’s New York, Arthur Fleck struggles to both survive and fit into the troubled society around him. It doesn’t help that he has a condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably at times of discomfort. His goal is to be a stand-up comedian and appear on the popular late-night show “Late Night with Murray Franklin.” One of the only things that make his life bearable, outside of pursuing his dreams, is the relationship with his mother, Penny. He takes care of her at night while working on his stand-up act. When things start to go south, and they really do plummet, he starts to slowly lose his grip on his sanity and reality. As the title states, this movie is all about his journey to becoming the infamous villain.
This isn’t a typical comic book film, but more of a character study that seemed like it was dipped into a vat of the most nihilistic feelings and darkest parts of life. The script, by director Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver, pulls no punches in mentally torturing Arthur. Any concern that this will be light comic book movie, similar in tone of any Marvel film, can be put to rest. Yes, it does match the atmosphere of its setting, but it really lays it all of it on thick. Todd Phillips’s vision of the city is wonderfully brought to life by fabulous production design and wonderful cinematography by Lawrence Sher. Unlike the green screens that plague many big budget production films, the movie’s setting feels like it is lived in.
So where does Joaquin Phoenix fall in the line of past incarnations of Joker? Out of the interpretations that we’ve seen over the last 60 years, he has the most room to breathe. Even though Phillips and Silver take liberties with the material, they are working off “The Killing Joke.” The story asks the question about how much the human mind can take before it snaps. Unlike the Joker in that story, Arthur isn’t exactly the most stable person when the film begins. To call him odd would be an understatement. Outside of portraying Arthur’s broken mental state, it also seems that his body is as jagged as his mind. Phoenix’s acting is incredible here. Yes, he does have more time, but this Joker seems to have more depth than just creating chaos. The entire two hours of this film is seeing Arthur slowly become who he was meant to be. In order to show the unreliability of Arthur’s mind, Phillips constantly shows the audience events that may or may not have happened. It isn’t a film with clear answers. It is refreshing to see a big budget film made with the same daring film making style that you would see in one with a third of its cost.
The Joker has always been about creating chaos in a world that he seems corrupt. To him, we are all evil, but the comforts of our life keep us from going to the place where he happily resides. The Dark Knight beautifully examined this very aspect. This is more of an internal experience that will make viewers feel uneasy at times. There isn’t much hope to cling on to here. It is an onslaught of every negative emotion that we try to suppress or steer clear of in our lives. Isn’t that the point though? You will either have a smile while everything decays or start to feel uneasy how realistic this all feels. Phillips, who directed The Hangover, injects his dark humor to scenes that would be impossible to accomplish with a lesser director in the chair.
Joker is an interesting, brave, and very dark film. At its core, it is dark as night. Phoenix goes all in and gives a performance that will both awe and shake you. It’s one that must be seen multiple times, since the actor layers it so well, to be fully appreciated. Phillips mimics Scorsese well here, specifically Taxi Driver, with a broken man trying to survive in a dirty and corrupt world. It will be interesting to see what DC decides to do now that this film is a hit. Hopefully, in the future, we can get films with more than just incredible FX and grand action pieces.
I am giving JOKER a 4.5 out of 5 Hairpieces!