Acclaimed filmmaker Todd Phillips shakes up the cinematic environment with his savage masterpiece Joker, and with this film Phillips takes audiences on a twisted psychological journey that turns a man into a monster in what is an extremely dark, but exceptionally brilliant piece of filmmaking.
In 1981, a failed stand-up comedian named Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) disregarded by the society turns to a life of crime and chaos in Gotham City.
Let it be known that Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in Joker is utterly transformative. When you first lay your eyes upon Arthur Fleck it is apparent that this guy is beyond a doubt a loser. Arthur exists at the very bottom rung of the ladder in this broken system, and every day is a bad day. Beaten down by the society that he exists in, Arthur is continually flayed out by his needy mother, a loathsome work environment, his unfulfilled dreams of comedic success, and a society that is so uncaring that it doesn’t even recognise him. As we watch this man’s suffering unfold on screen, we soon start to see a brutal streak begin to develop within him, and when this callousness eventually explodes, with shocking fury I might add, it completely takes your breath away. Through all of the chaos that presents itself up upon the screen you only witness the character of Arthur and not a hint of Phoenix’s actorly self, and this is what makes his performance such an utter triumph.
Phoenix’s performance in Joker transcends every part of his being as an entertainer. As soon as he steps into the dishevelled shell of Arthur Fleck you see a completely different side to the actor. His physical appearance, facial expression, posture, voice, all of it changes as he steps into the character of Arthur. Everything about the construction of Arthur Fleck is designed to bring him down. Seeing this man walk through the trash laden streets of Gotham City, you meet a man who is being crushed by the weight of the world around him, and it pains you as an audience member to watch it. Phoenix’s key trait as Arthur is his maniacal laugh, which is rooted in the neurological condition of pathological laughter, and its shrill, high pitch certainly leads to plenty of uneasy moments. As the film moves forward and Arthur begins to accept the madness building up around him, we see his shadow self emerge in the Joker and the idea of a happy ending evaporates quickly!
Guiding the insanity that is on display here in Joker is Todd Phillips, and his direction here is nothing short of astounding. With Joker, Phillips has taken the comic book genre and completely cut it apart as he dives into the analysis of the villainous archetype, and what drives a man to manifest himself as insanity incarnate. Framing his story around the classic notion of the Joker’s ‘one bad day’ narrative, Phillips takes audiences into the dark recesses of the human psyche as Arthur slowly becomes a terrifying force to contend with. Phillips builds a viewing experience that is completely seamless here, and thanks to the power of the delivery of his narrative you get caught up in the events that are unfolding before you.
Joker is marked out by a cinematic style that harkens back to the films of the 1970s and early 1980s and it helps to set the mood for the grimy, grungy world of Gotham City. Alongside its lead protagonist, the dirty, failing environment of Gotham City plays a major part in the film’s story, and longtime Batman fans will get a thrill at seeing Phillips take on it. Inspired by classic films of the 1970s and early 1980s, including the works of Martin Scorsese such as Taxi Driver, Mean Streets and The King of Comedy, Phillips paints the picture of a crumbling, broken urban landscape which is plagued by massive income inequality, squalid living conditions and corruption at every level. This Gotham City is ready to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and all of its adds into the conditions that bolster Arthur’s evil shadow.
Two of the most important contributions to the success of Joker are its cinematography and score and Phillips lucks out here. Phillips regular cinematographer Lawrence Sher is on board for the ride and he crafts a film that is possessed by a haunting beauty. Making terrific use of light and shadow and the contrast that exists between them, along with an incredible colour palette that ranges from sickly greens and depressing greys to bright yellows and crimson reds, Sher’s eye for detail helps to visualize a unique cinematic experience for modern filmgoers. Then there’s the ghoulish score of composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, and her use of this gloomy, evocative music grounds you in the faltering world that surrounds Arthur and the nightmares that plague his subconscious. The union of these two filmmaking art forms contribute heavily to the success of Joker and Phillips makes incredible use of them in bringing his vision of Joker to life.
On the thematic level, a lot is going on inside of Joker and one of the most notable themes that Phillips explores here is the relationship between comedy and tragedy. Often regarded as the two most defining theatrical styles, every audience member is accustomed to the workings of these genres, but here Phillips pulls between each of them to show how each affects the other in his film. Added to this is the growing madness that slowly builds throughout the film, and audiences will be shocked as to how Phillips uses the idea of madness to shape this cinematic work. From narrative to character, the juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy impacts every part of Joker and Phillips thematic uses of genre helps him to get a reaction from his audience.
Added to this is Phillips deep exploration of the Shadow, a construct of Jungian archetypal psychology which has long held considerable sway over the source material related to the Joker. And here we see all of it on display. Joker is the exploration of a how a villain is formed and in the case of Arthur Fleck its the result of considerable trauma, a seething level of resentment, deep psychological scares, a failing approach to mental health and the uncaring world that this broken man lives in.
In Joker we see both nature and nurture lead to the manifestation of an extreme evil, and there’s plenty of shocking moments on display. It’s rare to see this level of analysis from a filmmaker, especially concerning a portrait of a villain, who as characters are so often regarded as one dimensional bad guys all for the sake of dramatic tension. But with Joker Phillips takes us inside the inner workings of a mind that is slowly falling to those darker human impulses, and I bet that you’ve never seen anything like it before.
Be forewarned that Joker is a piece of cinema that is not for the faint of heart. This is a film that is confronting, horrific and completely savage in its creation, but it is also something truly incredible to behold. In a world that is so accustomed to the workings of comic book narratives, it can sometimes feel like there’s no new direction to take the genre in. Joker is the answer to this. It’s a piece of cinema that looks to both its source material and the medium of film for inspiration, and then having sampled it, does it’s own things instead. For a director like Todd Phillips Joker is a very brave piece of film to make, and it brings something incredibly different to cinemas. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a piece of cinema that is so original in its construction, both in relation to the comic book genre and the medium of film in general, and that’s why Joker’s existence is such a triumphant success.
Joker is that piece of cinema where everything about it comes together. Direction, narrative, casting, production and score. All of it is present and accounted for here and it makes for an incredibly memorable viewing experience. It’s a film that will both shock and entrance you and I’m certain that you won’t be able to look away. And when its final frame fades to black and the credits begin to roll, you’ll come upon the realisation that you’ve witnessed something truly unique.
Image: Roadshow Films