From his inception in the 1950’s to his recreation in the 70’s, the Joker has always been a figure of mystery and chaos. Joker is a film that takes a tentative approach at humanizing a character that has always been the embodiment of raw chaos. In this interpretation by director Todd Philip’s there is a clear attempt at showing the reasons behind his madness, that even a man that embodies true insanity is still human – that perhaps even the most ludicrous villains can be sympathized with on some level.
But is any of this even right? If a character is intended to be a raw representations of chaos, would understanding that chaos therefore cancel out the very purpose of that characters chaos? It’s like how our early ancestors looked up at the moon and believed it to be magic; the moment they learn that it is a body of rock following the basic laws of physics, is the moment it loses its magic. The Joker is no different, if you understand him, he’s not really much of a mysterious chaotic puzzle anymore. Or hell, maybe he doesn’t need to be?
Joker handles certain aspects with care and patience, specifically the character’s mental instability and his gradual evolution into the Joker stand as the central pillar of this story. Both of these aspects are handled with the utmost care, it’s almost as if Todd Phillips poured all his energy into them. So, in my view, does Todd Phillips succeed? Well, the only controversy I hold with Joker is that, despite its rich colour palette – it’s somewhat narratively muted for a character that is meant to embody lunacy.
The problem with Joker doesn’t lie with the character being “sympathetic” as many will state, but with making his rationale understandable or downright justified. Simply put, he makes too much sense. Todd Philip’s Joker is no more of a violent loose cannon than a potty-mouthed Deadpool – in fact, he’s quite rational for a deranged killer clown. His reaction to the world is understandable as far as unstable psychopaths go — and when the Joker’s rationality makes sense, is he really the Joker? Chaos is his punchline, yet we’re met with a character that has his reasons for his actions. What we’re left with is a Joker that feels somewhat pitiful, one born from tragedy — and where’s the fun in that? Where’s the joke? Where’s the punchline? If a Pirates of Carribean film did a deep dive into why childhood trauma was the reason Jack Sparrow drank so much rum, it would immediately soil the fun behind his character’s drunken stupor. Sometimes the best answer is no answer – with Joker, we’re given more than we need.
However, the film holds its strengths with some plot twist moments and of course, Joaquin Phoenix’s deeply human performance. What can be said with certainty is that Joaquin felt more violent, unpredictable, and unstable playing the character of Joe in his role in the 2017 thriller film You Were Never Really Here than he did playing Joker. Phoenix portrays the Clown Prince of Crime in a way that will be talked about for years – certainly making the top 3 lists of best Joker portrayals. Phoenix puts on a happy face behind his pain, portraying a sense of misery, glee, and utter madness all at once. His uncontrollable laughter feels stifled but genuine and his posture holds itself in a hunched and twisted pose. He feels genuinely mentally unstable, but by no means in a fun or scary way – more in a scared and self-conscious way.
The film is a comic-book based film disguised as an art-house film due to its gorgeous cinematography and detailed self-contained set design. The camera follows Arthur for the majority of this film and encapsulates his descent into madness even if it keeps the audience at a distance at times. The use of the wide-angle lens builds an atmosphere in a way that is unlike any other comic-book based film and the floating close-up shots capture the Jokers transformative experience in a possessive manner. A film about the Joker is bound to be dark and gloomy but Lawrence Sher injects slivers of colour that complement the frame.
In a Scorcese-like fashion, Joker seizes the opportunity to create the gritty streets of New York as we watch Arthur Fleck struggle to function in the environment that surrounds him. Set to the backdrop of the early 1980s, the film has a wide variety of sets that are compelling towards the time-period and offer a strong visual appeal alongside its already stunning cinematography. Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir delivers an experimental score mainly composed of string-based instruments, drums and background orchestra to deliver a powerful theme that is haunting and fitting for Arthur Fleck.
Director Todd Phillips takes delicate care of this character, aiming to show as much human complexity as he can while he strips away this character’s humanity. In a vacuum, Joker is a fantastic character study film – we see a man suffer through great pain and watch his gradual spiral downwards into a pit of despair and depravity. Todd Philips paints an impactful interpretation of the Clown Prince of Crime, held together by Joaquin Phoenix’s maniacally mad performance – even if the results aren’t as fiendish or funny as I’d hoped.
But the question remains, is the audience provided a good Joker film? Well, many would argue that the Joker isn’t meant to be understood, therefore trying to make sense of him is, in and of itself, senseless. What Todd Philips does here is provide us with a relatively basic interpretation of the human psyche – but hey, at the very least, it’s something new for the comic book genre.
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