When faced with the challenge of creating a cinematic origin story for one of the most recognizable villains in all of media, director Todd Phillips went above and beyond in painting a perfect picture of the criminally insane clown, Joker. Not only is it the most refreshing addition to the genre of comic book movies, Joker immediately deserves to be recognized as one of the best.
First and foremost, I have to give compliments to Phillips, who chose to approach the movie in a way in which he obviously wanted to utilize the entirety of the art of film, which is not something often found in a movie of this genre. Most comic book films focus specifically on the recognizable characters or their stories, but Joker goes in a much different direction. Instead of an adventure that’s fun or action-packed, we get a brutal story that is not only gripping, but downright horrifying.
In Joker, we get to see a sickly man devolve from just that— a man clearly ill— to a downright insane villain. The world beats hard onto Arthur Fleck, who from the start is disadvantaged, and it transforms him into to the character that we all know and hate, the Joker. There’s no quirky origin to Arthur’s villainly, instead it’s real world issues like the shutting down of social welfare programs and the harsh division of wealth within Gotham City that act as Arthur’s catalyst. On top of that, I cannot give Joaquin Phoenix enough praise for his masterful portrayal of the character. I could speak indefinitely on the raw talent Phoenix shows throughout the entirety of the film, but I think saying this version of the Joker easily rivals that of Heath Ledger’s take on the clown in 2008’s The Dark Knight says enough. I suppose I should also add that Phoenix’s laugh for the character will most certainly resonate with me in my attempts to sleep for several nights after watching this movie.
So many subtleties were at play throughout Joker that truly emphasized the themes present. One such technique that stood out to me was the clever way that Phillips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher let us see the world in a manner more similar to our lead character. Throughout the early stages of the film, you’d be hard pressed to find a regular, still shot: the camera was either constantly moving, or on a swivel, making certain scenes appropriately disorienting, similar to how Arthur views the world in his day to day life. Several other techniques are put into play that pay off effortlessly. For example, the usage of bright lights to simulate the pressure Arthur was facing, the addition of color into Arthur’s wardrobe as he grew and changed, and the jarring implementation of humor in some of the film’s darkest moments. Joker is the perfect case study on how a director can characterize someone within their movies without having to spew exposition all onto the floor.
My last praises go to the method in which the movie actually characterizes the Joker as the villain, as opposed to just the man, Arthur. For the majority of the film, it doesn’t actually seem like a movie about the Joker. It feels as if I am viewing the story of a man drifting into insanity, and that’s all the story is. Then, during the key moments come some startling reminders, and the familiar persona of the Joker comes out in such a satisfying way, it perfectly completes the film.
Frankly, my only complaint is that the film sets itself up for a perfect ending (it even fades to black), but then it keeps going for another two minute scene. The only purpose of the scene I can assume is it serves to characterize Arthur more now as the Joker than actually Arthur, but ultimately, the scene could be removed and I wouldn’t care.
I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend anyone in need of a good psychological thriller to Joker. From beginning to end the film carries a blood-pumping intensity that’s, to put it bluntly, unforgettable.