TAS Reviews: Joker
It's been over 3 months since my last movie review. That isn't because I haven't been seeing any movies. Since then, I've seen MiB: International, The Lion King, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, It: Chapter 2, Hobbs and Shaw, and although I left the theatre with a lot of mental bullet points, none of them left me impassioned enough, one way or another, to commit to weaving these thoughts together into a solid review. If I'm going to write a review, I want it to be of quality, and that requires a lot of time, investment and most of all, passion.
Writing a review for a can be difficult, and as a writer, it's easy to feel like what you're writing about, at times, just isn't significant enough to continue with. It's easy to start writing a review, and end up scrapping it midway because you feel like what you're saying just doesn't need to be said. It is this that makes Joker so special to me. Joker is the first time in months, where a movie left me feeling compelled to talk. Immediately after I left the theatre, I felt obliged to share with everyone just how I feel about this movie. I felt an urge to get on here, and tell everyone just how I feel about Todd Phillips's R-rated envisioning of the origins of Joker.
I seriously cannot remember the last time I've reacted so strongly to a movie emotionally. This is a movie that reminded me why I loved movies. For me, this movie was more than just an enjoyable movie experience. It is a movie that rejuvenated my love for cinema as a storytelling art form, reminding me of the endless possibilities, emotions and meaning that can be created and invoked by cinema. Joker is nothing short of an absolute masterpiece. This is an intimidating review to write because I genuinely don't know where to start. There's just so much to praise about it. However, since this movie is a character-focused drama, where the lead character, Arthur Fleck, is in almost every frame of the movie: it feels appropriate to start with him. This movie is all about Fleck's transformation from a timid, mentally ill loner, into the titular villain.
I love stories about descents into madness, but this one I felt was particularly powerful. Arthur is in a completely different place by the end of the movie than he was in the beginning, and this change is illustrated beautifully. The reason this transformation works is because the filmmakers do such a good job early on in the movie getting you to sympathise and feel for Arthur, that when he begins to commit violent, inhumane acts, it genuinely feels disheartening, disturbing and hard-hitting. I love movies like John Wick, where we can sit and cheer on as the lead-character blows the brains out of (more often than not) nameless baddies, but in this movie, there was nothing cheerful about the violence the lead-character committed on screen.
I always say that character-driven movies live or die by the performance of their lead-actor, and this movie could not have asked for a better fit for the title role. Joaquin Phoenix delivers the greatest performance in comic book movie history, and it's hard to imagine anyone for the rest of the year, across any genre of cinema, delivering a better performance. If the Academy Awards were hosted tomorrow: I would not hesitate for a second to choose him as my Oscar favourite. It's hard to articulate in words just how incredible the performance is: but he imbues the lead-character with so many different nuances, painting him as a truly 3-dimensional portrait of a man gradually losing the sanity and normalcy he had left in him. In regards to the transformation of Arthur into Joker, a lesser actor would've slapped on clown makeup and called it a day, but Joaquin ensures that he represents the change from Arthur to Joker in his performance, and he does so beautifully.
For instance: whereas Arthur's laughs appear to cause him genuine pain infliction, Joker's laughs are absent of infliction. Whereas Arthur's body language is tense, wound-up and timid, Joker's body-language is expressive and free, physically representing the sense of liberation and freedom that the transformation into Joker gives Arthur. This is such a multifaceted character - from his desire to care his mother, to his hunger for validation and acceptance, to his love for dance, which is used as a storytelling tool, in a movie that paints a devastating portrait of a man's descent into madness, and it's hard to imagine anyone embodying this portrayal of Arthur any better than Joaquin.
It's impossible to praise this movie without praising the top-notch technical aspects. Hildur Guðnadóttir's score is almost a character of it's own, contributing to the sense of dread and horror of watching Arthur descend into madness. The cinematography of the film is also just stunning. There are shots in this film that feel like paintings come to life, particularly in the third-act of the movie. It also does a fantastic job transporting audiences into the time-period this movie is set in.
To end this review, I'd like to discuss the controversy surrounding this film. I'm not interested in discussing whether I agree with the argument that this movie will inspire real-life violence. What I am interested in discussing is the argument that it is wrong for Todd Phillips to create a movie sympathetic of such a violent, inhumane and unethical character. Here's the thing. Storytelling has historically made us sympathise with characters who do terrible things.
This has been a thing since storytelling has existed, and has applied to movies, novels and even video games. In this case, I'm going to use a video game to illustrate my point. In David Cage's Heavy Rain, the protagonist, Ethan Mars, loses his son, Shawn, in a car-accident, and later on, loses his other son Jason, to a kidnapping. For the rest of the video-game, Ethan sets out on a mission to rescue and reunite with his kidnapped son, and even (depending on what the player chooses to do) commits unethical acts to do so, including the killing of an innocent man.
This is such an inhumane and terrible act, but what made that game so great, is because it held a mirror to the audience. Although the protagonist was committing inarguably inhumane acts, audiences still sympathised with his plight, and were left asking themselves: "would I do the same thing if I was placed under the same circumstances?" Maybe your answer is yes. Maybe your answer is no. Maybe you don't have an answer. But either way, the best, most compelling stories in human history have been the ones that ask the difficult questions.
The richest stories in human history have been those that provoke thought. The best examples of storytelling, for as long as storytelling has existed, are those that make us question things about the human condition. The filmmakers know that what Joker is doing is unethical and inhumane, and it is that which makes this movie such a powerful piece of storytelling. Watching Joker commit and revel in these acts of violence and inhumanity is so painful to watch, yet you're left asking yourself: "well, would we have done the same if we lived the life that we lived?" Regardless of which conclusion you reach, the film made you ask that question, which is worth something.
Joker is a movie that reminded me of why I fell in love with movies as an artform. This movie is so rich that I still feel I've only touched the tip of the iceberg, but I guess I'll leave it here. With Joker, Todd Phillips has created a devastating, beautiful, thought-provoking portrait of a man who gradually loses everything that meant anything to him, and descends into madness. Joaquin Phoenix is ridiculously good in the role, delivering a performance that should go down as one of the greatest in cinematic history. It is an absolute masterpiece of a film: the best movie of 2019, the greatest comic book movie ever made, and a new personal favourite of mine. It's a movie that reinvigorated my love for the artform, but the same time, made me think: "damn, why can't all movies be this good?" It's that good.