As fascinating as it is disturbing, this standalone film is a lot more than it seems
I don’t see Joker as a movie about a Batman villain. For some reason, I have trouble even connecting Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck with the classical Joker.
Above all else, when I watch Joker, I see a film about mental illness, childhood trauma and the consequences of inadequate social support. Say what you will about the film, maybe you thought it was flat, too disturbing or not disturbing enough. Before Joker was even released, there was a lot of criticism of the movie saying that it glorifies and encourages white men who feel disenfranchised to turn to violence to be noticed. Joker brings these issues to light in a way that forces you to confront them as well as your morals. There is also an interesting commentary on poverty and class which ties into the main themes and asserts itself as a significant theme throughout the film. Arthur Fleck is depicted as a struggling, lonely mentally ill man trying to make sense of his place in the world, but the film never uses this as an excuse for the actions he commits. His villainy or innocence is up to the viewer.
Now, I need to address the most extraordinary force in Joker: Joaquin Phoenix. To get straight to the point, his performance is phenomenal. He beautifully conveys Fleck’s internal pain and uses movement to emote specific emotional atmospheres. Phoenix reels you into the character’s head and makes you understand his state of mind and his actions, moral or not. It’s almost messed up how he’s able to make you feel empathetic for Arthur when you feel like you shouldn’t, but that’s just part of the magic of Phoenix’s performance. An Oscar Nomination for Best Actor is guaranteed, and I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t win. The way he makes you feel certain emotions with the simplest gestures and expressions is astonishing.
The soundtrack by Hildur Guðnadóttir, the cinematography by Lawrence Sher, and the direction by Todd Phillips brings you right into the era, location and most importantly the feeling of this film. Guðnadóttir creates a dark and distressed cello-heavy soundtrack that makes you feel like you’re in the murky depths of Gotham City… and of Arthur’s mind. Along with her previous work, like TV mini-series Chernobyl and Sicario: Day of the Soldado, Guðnadóttir is a force to be reckoned with. With Phillips, the pacing was excellent. I appreciated that he allowed some scenes to play out without much dialogue and let Phoenix use movement to flesh out the scene. Sher’s stunning cinematography was the final selling point for me to decide that, on a technical level, Joker is a masterpiece.
Ultimately, I think that Joker is one of the more important films to come out of 2019. Phoenix delivered a powerful performance, Guðnadóttir gave us a stellar soundtrack and, ultimately, I got a film that I will be thinking about for a long time.
Graphic by @joeybruceart