Review: Joker (2019)

DC’s successful attempt at dark, beautiful, masterfully-acted character study

One might think that Todd Phillips’ Joker is simply just another comic book movie to plague the screens of cinemas this year. One may believe that it is nothing but another desperate take on the titular character by the executives at DC, and would likely pale in comparison to that of Heath Ledger’s masterful performance in 2008’s The Dark Knight. One might think a movie with this subject matter could not possibly capture an accurate portrait of mental health, poverty, or a descent into madness by an average citizen. Fortunately, one would be very, very wrong.

It may be needless to say, but Joker is not a film for everyone. Despite its masterful performances by some of the top talent working in Hollywood today, a beautiful, haunting soundtrack by one of Iceland’s best composers, or a script that weaves together just the right amount of Batman and DC lore into a perfect self-contained story, the story is dark, and not for the faint of heart. Joker tells the tale of a man so beaten-down by society that he breaks, setting him on a quest to find the only thing that gives his life purpose in a world full of people who otherwise wouldn’t care about him. Joker, despite what you may think, is a masterfully-crafted film about one man’s search for identity. 

For some context, here’s a brief, spoiler-free summary about the film. Set in Gotham City in the early 1980’s, lead actor Joaquin Phoenix plays the character of Arthur Fleck, a poor, failing comedian and party clown who barely makes enough money to afford his own medication and food to feed him and his mother, with whom he lives in a run-down apartment. Arthur suffers from a number of mental illnesses, including a brain condition known as the pseudobulbar effect— an emotional disturbance characterized by uncontrollable bouts of laughing. Frances Conroy, famous for her roles in American Horror Story, plays the role of Arthur’s mother Penny Fleck, a woman confined to her apartment due to health issues in her old age. Penny, however, finds hope day-to-day by writing to Thomas Wayne (yes, that Thomas Wayne!) for whom she worked for in her youth. The two get along just fine; they have a tradition of watching The Murray Franklin Show (think ‘Jimmy Kimmel,’ but set in the 80’s) every night, with Arthur often fantasizing about one day making it onto the show himself. 

However, as the city of Gotham falls apart around Arthur and his mother leaving them to suffer from cutbacks and programs that once helped the pair, Arthur’s life begins to shatter under the totalitarianism of Gotham’s elite. Subjected to the brutality of citizens who criticize him for his appearance and condition, Arthur’s mental state begins to wane as he also starts to uncover secrets about himself and his mother, leading him down a dark road of self-discovery. 

Joker’s cast is likely the greatest part of the film, star-studded with the likes of Phoenix himself, as well as Robert De Niro and Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2, Atlanta). Joker provides audiences with yet another outlet for lead actor Joaquin Phoenix to show his masterful prowess in front of a camera, delivering a dark, mystifying performance as a character most viewers thought they already fully understood. Previously known for his work in Her, The Master, Gladiator or 2017’s You Were Never Really Here, Phoenix has consistently proven himself to be one of the greatest actors working today, capable of showing complex, raw emotion during any project he takes on. 

Despite Phoenix famously being known for being anxious on movie sets (even though he has acted since he was a child) he manages to deliver a deep, emotion-heavy performance as the character of Arthur Fleck, tackling, and embodying, an incredible take on mental illness. Phoenix is easily one of the greatest parts of the film, rivaled only by its soundtrack composed by classically-trained Icelandic cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir.

While I might be a bit of a biased source, Joker really does accomplish something I think few people thought it could manage. Phoenix’s performance is pitch-perfect, offering up just the right of comedy, horror, and dark, melancholic sadness for a character you really shouldn’t be rooting for, even though you will, even to the final shot of the film. That final shot happens to be my only critique of the movie, summed up better in other reviews as something along the lines of “the director’s inability to choose what beautifully-shot frame to end the film on.” 

The final act of the film does extend for a few minutes longer than I think it should, but really, I still can’t complain— I have seen the film twice now, and would gladly watch it again if I were given a chance. Joker offers everything a comic book fan could want, as well as any fan of cinema as a whole.  

~Ben Sties, Staff Writer~

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