REVIEW: Joker

★★★★★ | Zach Hester • @hestzach

Send in the clowns…just not the crazy, murderous ones. 

In a world of (sometimes) tired remakes and more superhero movies than even the biggest fan can handle, Todd Phillips has done something with a comic book character that no other director has been able to pull off. At least, not this successfully. 

Joker, a somewhat origin story of the iconic Batman villain, follows Arthur Fleck, a failed stand-up comedian who gives in to his darkest ways and becomes the symbol behind a chaotic movement in Gotham City. 

It’s impossible to begin a review for this movie without stating this as fact: there’s not one actor alive today that can match Joaquin Phoenix in terms of dedication and talent to this role. I firmly believe that. Heath Ledger gave in to this role and delivered an exceptional performance, and so does Joaquin. People will be comparing their takes on the character for years to come, but they’re honestly so different that it’s similar to comparing apples and oranges. Phoenix gives everything he has to a role, and in the shoes of this madman, he excels. If he isn’t walking away with the Best Actor trophy at every award show this year, it will be a huge mistake. 

From the moment I knew this movie was being made, I knew there would be a break in the movie where you would empathize with the lead character. That does exist. Up until a certain point where Arthur begins acting in revenge instead of self-defense, you do understand his point of view. This is a character who leads a low class lifestyle with not much to look forward to: he’s failed at his dream job, his aging mother has hidden his true identity away from him, and none of the medications to treat his various mental illnesses seem to be working. It’s this culmination of events, along with the fact that society is working against him (and all Gotham residents in the lower class), that turn him into the Clown Prince of Crime. 

In the beginning, you believe this man is innocent, just a victim of his circumstances, perhaps. Partway through the second act, you wonder if it’s his genetics that make him the way he does. You never truly learn whether society shaped him into the Joker, or if the Joker was inside him all along. To a certain point, it doesn’t matter. It eventually becomes so dark that there’s no redeeming qualities to his actions whatsoever. 

Despite being a phenomenal film, there’s an aura of discomfort with a movie of this calibre. It’s definitely not your typical comic book movie in any way, shape or form. It’s a psychological thriller through and through with elements of drama added to Arthur’s backstory. You may be uneasy leaving the theater, even though it’s clear that this is a pure piece of artistic cinema. You see the psychological elements scattered across the whole film. From the daunting score that hangs over scenes so perfectly to the cinematography, which somehow feels both light and dark at the same time, the movie aspires to Oscar-worthy technical achievements and does well in that effort. 

My biggest takeaway from Joker is this: never put yourself in a box creatively. Phillips has made a powerful film in the vein of Martin Scorsese with his own twisted flair. He’s the same guy who wrote Borat and created all 3 Hangover movies. Now he makes this and wins the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Do with that information what you will.