“Joker,” directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role, brings an original and detailed dive into the psyche of Batman’s enigmatic villain, while simultaneously creating one of the most memorable character performances of the last decade.
The movie was first shown on Aug. 31 at the 76th Venice International Film Festival and won the top film prize: The Golden Lion. It was then released worldwide on Oct. 2 to a record-breaking weekend for the October box office and has generated both critical and fan acclaim. “Joker” is bound to be an instant classic, both as a comic book film and a psychological thriller.
The story, loosely based on the graphic novel “Batman: The Killing Joke” (1998), tells the story of Arthur Fleck played by Phoenix, a man plagued by mental illness and societal pressures that inevitably mold him into the villain the world has become so familiar with. The film transports us to the precipice of his transition from Fleck to Joker; the film is a domino line, with every scene being reactionary to the last. Eventually, the last domino falls and Arthur Fleck is transformed into the Joker.
The performance by Joaquin Phoenix has been described as worthy of an Academy Award; this is incredibly justified. Phoenix takes the pressure of having to portray one of the most iconic characters in comic book history and channeled it into a performance that will be talked about for many years to come.
Phoenix portrays Fleck’s mental illnesses, such as his uncontrollable laughter and his depression, with complexity, nuance and precision. The delivery of his dialogue is poignant and full of emotion. His physicality shines throughout the film; Phoenix is committed to the role through the weight he’s lost and the research and time he has put into studying his character. His movements and his expressions are unsettling and uncomfortable and they evolve throughout the film with Fleck. The film is a metamorphosis from the caterpillar that was Arthur Fleck to the beautifully terrifying butterfly that is the Joker.
The direction by Phillips crafts character-driven scenes and the film is guided with great pacing. He hits all the character beats and emotions of Phoenix’s performance, emphasizing the transformation Fleck is going through. Philips along with co-writer Scott Silver’s variation of Gotham City feels like the breeding ground for a monster like the Joker. The audience is transported into the film’s atmosphere with intricate detail amidst the chaos of social and political outrage.
The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Lawrence Sher, while Hildur Guðnadóttir creates a score that is haunting; the whole production puts all of its weight on Phoenix, who carries the film brilliantly to the finish line.
Although in terms of performance, this film is Phoenix’s in every sense. Certain supporting performances stood out and held the film together: Robert De Niro and Frances Conroy from “American Horror Story.” De Niro delivers a charismatic and ignorant performance as talk show host Murray Franklin, while Conroy’s performance as Penny Fleck, Arthur’s mother, holds great emotional weight in the film.
It would be unfair to compare to the performance of Phoenix to that of other Jokers such as Heath Ledger, who won an Academy Award for his performance as the same character in “The Dark Knight” (2008). Most of the film, we see Arthur Fleck the man transforming into the Joker. It is only in the last 30 or so minutes of the film that we see the Joker in his chaotic glory.
There are, unfortunately, no plans for integrating Phoenix’s Joker into a movie with the DC cinematic universe’s Batman.
That is quite a shame for fans of this film who would love to see him interact and take on a supporting role as an antagonist, as opposed to the performance of a protagonist such as this film.
“Joker” achieves its goal of being a deep character study of the popular villain. Phoenix continues his streak of delivering critically acclaimed performances in films such as “The Master” and “Walk the Line”; while Philips makes a flawless transition from a director of comedies such as “The Hangover” films, to one of dramas.
Aside from the references to Batman, the film stands on its own as the new member of the psychological thriller genre; it earns a well-deserved spot on the shelf next to classics like “Taxi Driver”(1976). I highly recommend “Joker” to a mature audience, but be warned that this film is masterful in making the audience both uncomfortable and disturbed — something I consider a part of its beauty.