Todd Phillips directs from a screenplay he co-wrote with writer Scott Silver, based on characters from DC. The film is being produced by Phillips and Bradley Cooper under their Joint Effort banner, and Emma Tillinger Koskoff. It is executive produced by Richard Baratta, Joseph Garner and Bruce Berman.
The film stars Joaquin Phoenix in the title role, also starring are Zazie Beetz, Bill Camp, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Douglas Hodge, Marc Maron, Josh Pais, and Shea Whigham.
Forever alone in a crowd, Arthur Fleck seeks connection. Yet, as he trods the sooted Gotham City streets and rides the graffitied mass transit rails of a hostile town teeming with division and dissatisfaction, Arthur wears two masks. One, he paints on for his day job as a clown. The other he can never remove; it’s the guise he projects in a futile attempt to feel he’s a part of the world around him, and not the misunderstood man whom life is repeatedly beating down. Fatherless, Arthur has a fragile mother, arguably his best friend, who nicknamed him Happy, a moniker that’s fostered in Arthur a smile that hides the heartache beneath. But, when bullied by teens on the streets, taunted by suits on the subway, or simply teased by his fellow clowns at work, this social outlier only becomes even more out of sync with everyone around him.
BEWARE OF SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT ONWARDS…
For all the talk of Joker being an ultra-violent, ultra-disturbing film. One which many reviewers believe could incite true-life violence no less. The film itself is much more of the nuanced character exploration which we were promised from the outset.
Though there are moments of extreme violence, the film is far more concerned with telling you the story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) than intentionally causing any intentional discomfort.
That’s not to say there aren’t any uncomfortable moments waiting for you during the near two-hour runtime though. It’s just that those moments are born from Arthur’s story and not the other way around. Only one scene – which is too spoiler to discuss – felt forced to me. An excellent feeling coming from a huge studio, comic book movie.
Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver have crafted an emotionally intelligent story which, despite a modicum of comedy, remains pretty downbeat. From the opening scene the tone begins to weigh heavily on the audience and is unrelenting right until its final moments.
This is not the Gotham City we are used to. Despite the obvious lack of certain comic book characters whom we would consider central to the story, there are plenty more ways to bring the city down than simply populating it with super villains.
This late 70s/early 80s Gotham is suffering from a plague of “super rats” brought about by a municipal worker strike that has left garbage piling up in the streets. Budget cuts and corner cutting is leaving the poor destitute and the rich, well… rich.
Arthur is caught in the middle of all this. A victim of the system he was born in to. Much of the story revolves around his position in society and how his circumstances subvert expectations even when the outcome of the story is so widely known.
Even the way the city is filmed feels different to other Batman-related properties. There’s a dash more colour to it but Joker also offers us the opportunity to spend much more time on the ground amongst Gotham’s citizens. This new angle opens up a lot of opportunities for storytelling which Todd really capitalises on here.
Ultimately Joker‘s biggest hook is its journey. With no comic book storyline to adhere to, Phillips is free to carve a unique path for Fleck which plays out to often nervous laughter from its audience. Aside from a couple of obvious story beats the film plays with story and structure, allowing it to feel incredibly fresh against this year’s other huge comic book movies.
But those expecting Joker to completely shrug off any connections to DC Comics would be wrong. Whilst it is almost entirely a What If…?/Elseworlds style tale Joker is still able to pay homage to some of the characters biggest moments.
Don’t expect to see the DC intro at the beginning however…
Fans of The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller will find one sequence particularly exciting and stressful. It’s not hard to guess the general circumstances of the scene by boy was it stressful to watch as the events play out.
This general flirtation with DC Comics lore allows Phillips and co. to play in the sandbox without ever being beholden to it. The results of which are easily one of the greatest comic book movies of the decade.
The film absolutely hangs on Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. He appears in almost every scene and so it’s crucial that Arthur’s journey be believable. It’s no surprise that many are calling for Phoenix to gain an Oscar nomination for his portrayal. His physicality alone is astonishing.
During our Q&A with Phoenix and Phillips both mentioned how Fleck has music within him. Todd Phillips explained this was to add a grace to the character which would also help visualise his descent in to madness.
Several of these moments have been glimpsed in the trailer but none are more effective than Fleck, in clown makeup, dancing alone in a public toilet. It comes following one of his first shocking acts of villainy and is a perfect example of how the film handles its characters.
Outside of the physicality Phoenix brings a lot of emotions to Arthur. There’s no doubting he’s a complex personality but Phillips presents him in a way which is easy to read on screen.
Other cast members, including Zazie Beetz; Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy and Brett Cullen are all supporting roles in the tale. Though each only has limited screen time, all are incredibly important to Arthur’s ultimate transformation.
I can’t say much without spoiling the story but each of the above has some kind of impact of Fleck which push him towards accepting his Joker persona. Though all have the opportunity to push the character in the other direction, it is their actions which ultimately culmination in the creation of one of comics most twisted villains.
Joker is a perfect analogy for our contemporary society and how our own actions can influence some of the more disparate personalities around us. Ultimately Joker‘s legacy will be its audacious attitude to challenging stereotypes and conceptions.
Within that it is not hard to see why the film’s detractors are concerned. Though I don’t see it “causing” real-life violence the film if incredibly lifelike in its portrayal and it’s not hard to imagine these circumstances playing out for real.
There were moments where I felt sympathy for the character. I felt that I often needed to remind myself that he’s not someone to sympathise with but the construction of the narrative makes it difficult not to feel for him. Leaving the cinema I felt incredibly uncomfortable at my own thoughts on Fleck.
Sonically, Hildur Guðnadóttir provides Joker with an absolutely stunning score. It’s understated, haunting and perfectly accompanies Lawrence Sher’s cinematography.
Much of Guðnadóttir’s music is played on the double bass, creating a low resonating sound which has echoes of Game of Thrones at times. It’s able to accentuate the downbeat nature whilst also enhancing the madness of certain scenes.
It’s not an understatement to say that Joker is now my absolute favourite film scores of 2019.
We were lucky enough to see the film in IMAX and it looked stunning. Sher’s visuals give an outstanding glimpse into the world of this period Gotham.
Wide shots take in the full view of the city, shot in New York, whilst close up are often disconcerting and uncomfortable. The film overall is able to visually recreate the emotions of the story and that is a true sign of success for me.
Joker is a revelation for the comic book movie genre. A masterpiece by many standards it features an Oscar-worthy performance from Phoenix, stunning visuals and an equally stunning score. It’s heartbreaking, subversive and will stick with you hours after you leave the theatre.
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