Ever since Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” Heath Ledger’s Joker has been remembered as both the most intriguing and frightening iteration of the character. Just recently, Ledger’s Joker was voted as the greatest cinematic moment of the last 21 years on Rotten Tomatoes, and continues, after over 11 years, to be the villain against which all other villains are measured.
Needless to say, when Joaquin Phoenix, one of the greatest method actors of our time, was announced to be taking on the burdensome mantle of the Joker in an origin story for the comic book villain, the movie-going world’s anticipation was palpable.
Well, the wait is now over, and the film that writer/director Todd Phillips and Phoenix deliver to audiences is anything but a joke.
“Joker” is the most serious film that has been released this year, and all should be prepared to watch it as such.
“Joker” tells the story of Arthur Fleck, played by Phoenix, who spends his days as a professional clown and his nights taking care of his ailing mother in Gotham City.
Little love can be found for Fleck out in the world. Due to his neurological disorder, Fleck laughs uncontrollably whenever he encounters frightening or uncomfortable situations.
However, when he paints on his makeup, laces up his clown shoes, puts on a bright colored suit and squeaky nose, Fleck’s uncontrollable laugh simply becomes part of an act — an act that, unfortunately, the broken and impoverished people of Gotham care for very little.
Fleck is brutalized by gangs, feared by mothers trying to keep their children away from the scary laughing man and left behind by a society that seems as though it was built to keep him down and out.
As the film goes on, Phillips peels away the layers of this shattered and maddening man as we, and Fleck, learn more about the truth of things. The more we learn of Fleck, the more we learn of the system that he comes to hate so much, and the more we learn that perspective is truly everything.
“Joker” shows the true potential of comic book movies. Fleck’s world is not funny, it is not optimistic, and it is certainly not fictional in many respects.
Phillips and writer Scott Silver take mental illness and use it to show audiences how a simple shift in perspective and cognitive processing can change everything. A lack of compassion for people who are afflicted by severe mental illnesses can lead to personal and societal disintegration.
Ultimately, “Joker” shows that a society which lacks compassion for its most vulnerable members is one which is itself diseased.
A mad society like this, is like gravity as Heath Ledger’s Joker famously said. All it takes is a little push, and everything will crumble.
However original this film might be in the comic book genre, we have all seen films of this style before. “Joker” relies heavily upon cinematic precedent set by films like Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” to tell its dark and personal story.
Phillips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher pursue an intensely personal path in filming this origins story. Fleck is prominent in every shot, and we see everything with Fleck and from his perspective.
As Fleck begins to learn how to express himself in the film, the cinematography grows more and more personal. When the Joker finally dons his suit and dances his way to chaos, the camera seems to follow suit, taking the audience on a ride into madness with Fleck.
Phoenix cements his status as one of the most capable, daring and enigmatic actors to ever dance across the screen. Phoenix’s dedication to this poor, abused and perplexing character is striking and often entrancing.
Additionally, Robert De Niro is fantastic as the late-night talk show host serving as Fleck’s inspiration and comedic role model.
Every aspect of this film is set, acted and shot to perfection, challenging viewers in a powerful way. “Joker” is a film that cannot be classified as entertainment, but rather as an exercise in perspective and introspection.
An in-depth examination of the soulful and striking score by Hildur Guðnadóttir reveals the emotional and narrative depth of this film, guiding the viewer’s mind to the more subtle and shocking parts of this story.
By showing us the lapses in logic and inconsistencies in our own society’s values, “Joker” proves that, in the end, the biggest jokes of all are ourselves and the society we hesitate to challenge when we put on a happy face and live with our lies.