“Joker,” directed by Todd Philips, is the most recent movie in DC’s movie division, and probably its best film to date. This isn’t to say that “Joker” is a perfect movie, nor has it redeemed the DC Cinematic Universe. However, it’s incredibly well done and due to its standalone nature, it makes for a very creative and interesting adaptation of the source material.
The movie is a character study of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a party-clown for hire who suffers from a host of mental illnesses and a condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably. He lives in the slums of Gotham, desperately trying to make it big as a stand-up comic, but finds himself continually abused and mistreated by the city. All this abuse results in the creation of his alter-ego, Joker, who’s part misanthrope, part anarchist and brings Gotham down to his level.
The highlight of the film is Phoenix’s acting. He does an incredible job of portraying Arthur as a man down on his luck, desperately trying to be a good person. Unfortunately, he becomes a victim of his own neuroses in a city that leaves him high and dry. When Arthur becomes Joker, his mood shifts. He’s no longer held down by anything or anyone. It’s equally cathartic as it is horrifying. One moment he’s viciously murdering a co-worker who betrayed him, the next he’s grooving to Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll.”
One of the great things the film does is portray Joker sympathetically while critically examining his actions. The movie makes us sympathize with his plight, but also acknowledge that his violent backlash isn’t the answer.
The other performances were equally strong. Robert De Niro blends the right amount of industry sleaze with sincerity in his role as late-night talk show host Murray Franklin. Brett Cullen is perfect as the seedy, immoral, condescending Thomas Wayne. Although Arthur’s neighbor, Sophie Dumond, doesn’t get enough screen time, her role in the film is crucial and Zazie Beetz does a great job portraying her. The only performance that I didn’t care for was Frances Conroy as Arthur’s mother; the delivery of her lines felt stilted, and not in a way that seemed intentional.
The film’s use of comedy is also of note. There are many moments in the film that are played for comedy amidst the dark and gritty tone of the film. Granted, a lot of this is dark comedy, but it hammers the point home that Arthur’s life is a comedy. When he dramatically walks away from a pair of cops questioning him, he runs into an automatic door face first. Just little moments like these that save the film from becoming overbearing, and hold up the film in an important way.
The soundtrack for the film was also well done, especially for the moments when licensed songs were used. One particular standout moment was when Gotham is descending into chaos, with cars burning and people rioting in the street, set to Cream’s “White Room.” It was a breathtaking moment, and possibly my favorite scene of the film. The score, by Hildur Guðnadóttir, was just as good, being a collection of dark, ambient tracks adding to the film’s mood.
However, the film is not without issues. While for the most part the dialogue is well done, there are moments where it becomes a bit too on the nose about it’s message. The explosive confrontation between Arthur and Murray is great to watch, but when Arthur was preaching to the masses about society, I was taken out of the film a little bit.
The pacing of the film was also a bit off. The first act is quite a slog to get through. Granted, it is the first act and everything about the film needs to be established within it, but still, the pacing felt unusually slow. Luckily, the movie kicks up a gear in the second act before putting the pedal to the metal in the third and final act.
Finally, I want to discuss the predicament the film placed itself in, in that it’s offering direct comparisons to to Martin Scorcesse’s Taxi Driver. There’s nothing wrong with wearing your influences on your sleeves, but this film wears them a bit too boldly. The casting of De Niro further muddles matters. I was constantly comparing the two films. Maybe that’s a me thing, but the obvious influences hampered the experience.
Overall, I think Joker is an incredibly well made and well done movie. There are a few flaws that I believe hold it back in ways that can’t be brushed off, but my experiences with “Joker” were ultimately positive. I recommend this movie to anyone who’s looking for something different in their comic book movies, and anyone who’s interested in dark and gritty cinema.