Hey NOCs! My camera is on the fritz so until I get things fixed, I’ll be going back to written reviews for a bit, starting with our review of Joker, which debuts today at the 76th Venice International Film Festival. Minor spoilers ahead!
When you think of Todd Philips, the genres “comic book movie” or “psychological drama” don’t necessarily come to mind. That’s why it’s all the more shocking to see a film like Joker being co-written and directed by the filmmaker behind hits like The Hangover trilogy or Old School. But lo and behold, Philips has crafted a film that not only fits perfectly into both of the aforementioned categories, but completely gives the former genre an enema.
Joker is an astonishing, unsettling, surreal piece of cinema, that’s absolutely compelling from the moment we see Joaquin Phoenix’s broken down character Arthur giving a tortured stare into a mirror, to the final haunting frames of the film. While we have seen several dramas chronicling the descent of a character into insanity and violence, with Joker, Philips has contributed heavily to the further evolution of the comic book genre by crafting the first comic book film to consciously follow in the footsteps of Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, more than its own comic book roots. And the gamble pays off as he and Phoenix successfully suck you into Arthur’s twisted mind and point of view in an almost stream-of-consciousness, slow burn narrative that never feels boring and always feels urgent and fascinating.
The plotline itself is reasonably simple. Disturbed and ignored, Gotham City citizen Arthur Fleck (diagnosed with a supposed neurological disorder that causes him to laugh inappropriately) begins to succumb to his violent tendencies after a series of misfortunes aggravates his already deteriorating mental condition. Fueled by external conditions like the escalating tensions between Gotham’s impoverished individuals and wealthier citizens, like the Wayne family, as well as his relationships with his mother, his neighbor, his co-workers, and his obsession for a late-night talkshow comedian, Arthur’s slow descent into madness begins to unravel his true nature, and leads him down the path to becoming the clown prince of crime — The Joker.
The reason this movie is so successful is arguably because both Phoenix and Phillips are treating this film like an Elseworlds one-shot. The intent here was never to be anything like any comic book movie before it. This was meant to solely be a slow-burn character study about mental health. It helps considerably that this isn’t tied to any other films DC has created (e.g. the DCEU) because it allows Phillips and Phoenix to take the film down the extreme levels it goes through, and follow a certain style you won’t see in any family-approved superhero properties.
This further gives Phillips the opportunity to brilliantly explore some amazing and complex themes here from the effects of external factors on untreated and ignored mental health conditions, to social commentaries regarding the effects of wealth inequality on the breakdown of society. Then he ties everything into Batman mythology, and the results are legitimately unlike anything you’ve seen before. He’s crafted the best work of his filmography to date, and shatters your expectations of the filmmaker that brought us naked Ken Jeong in the trunk of Bradley Cooper’s car. Between what Phillips does with Joker, and what other comedy directors like Adam McKay have done with Vice or The Big Short, Hollywood needs to take notice about the fact that sometimes comedy filmmakers are even better with prestige pics than typical Oscar-bait directors.
As for Phoenix, he is at the top of his game here. Losing over 50 pounds in a stunning physical transformation is just the tip of the iceberg. He proceeds to portray Arthur in a gloriously scary, haunting, demented sort of way, starting out soft-spoken and meek, to more confident and angry with each violent act he commits. Phoenix gyrates to invisible music in celebration of his most terrifying acts, showcasing a man going further and further down a path of no return. Whenever bad things happen to Arthur, and you, as a viewer, begin to feel empathy for him, the character ups the ante with a disturbed act, that reminds you that you’re watching an unrelatable and unforgivable individual that is the embodiment of that separation that lies between civilized society and chaos.
At times you can’t quite blame him, and other times you’re just left shocked and speechless, or completely creeped out. And it takes a special actor like Phoenix to pull that bubbling anger, crippling tortured depression, and damaged psychosis off with panache and gravitas, and he does so with ease. It doesn’t hurt that Phoenix has an incredible Joker laugh too!
It’s important to note that I’m guilty of being a hardcore comic book fan, as I’ve noted several times on the site (my heart beats for all things MCU!). And to me, my favorite interpretations of The Joker were always the ones that were comedic one second, and terrifying the next (in other words basically just Mark Hamill, and no one has come close to reaching Hamill in my book). But when you walk into Joker, what you have to realize is that’s not what Phillips and Phoenix are going for.
Joker impressively comes off as a movie made by a filmmaker who knows and respects the material (hence the strings throughout the movie that loosely tie everything back to the comic book lore), but has made the conscious decision to create his own work of art. It’s reminiscent of writers like Brian Azzarello or Mark Millar crafting one-shot Elseworlds graphic novels that put their own spin on the mythology of characters that have existed 80 years. So you can’t compare Phoenix’s Joker to Ledger’s or Nicholson’s (though I definitely detected a hint of Nicholson in some of the physical movements). What Phoenix and Phillips do with the character — with the genre even — is wholly unique, and I think deserves to be appreciated as such. However, I think there’s a chance it will still be divisive, as mainstream moviegoers expecting something on par with Aquaman or Shazam, might be surprised they’re getting an entirely different movie.
That said, you’ll hear the terms “masterpiece” and “brilliant” being thrown around a lot for this film. All I can say is, believe them. This one is a game changer that will leave you shaking.
Overall Score: A-
While Joker premieres today at the Venice International Film Festival, it officially hits theaters October 4. So put on your best happy face, and see it as soon as you can!