Director: Todd Philips
Main Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conrow, Brett Cullen.
Producers: Todd Philips, Bradley Cooper, Emma Tillinger Koskoff.
Genre: Psychological Thriller
Movie Run Time: 2hrs 2mins
Review Read: ~ 10 mins
Much has been said about the new Joker movie: Its critical acclaim has, once again, flung Joaquin Phoenix into the limelight, almost unanimously taking over the late Heath Ledger’s mantle as the peoples’ favourite for the iconic villain. Todd Phillips is a name praised today in setting very powerful tonalities for the entirety of the movie and writing a really strong script. Of course, the movie has been highly praised for its stellar cinematography, but really, praising the movie for great cinematography is an understatement. The movie does not just hold great cinematography and a strong script, it does more than that, more than what most movies would do for their audiences: it engages them in more than a third-person observer perspective but engages them as the first-person protagonist. Joker is one of those movies that is a deep dive character study on the pains and nuances of insanity, much to the point of folie à deux – It gives an avenue for the audience to share in the character’s psychosis, creating one of the most profound cinematic experiences I have ever encountered in my entire life.
The story revolves around Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a party clown set in the early 80s of Gotham trying his best to get by in a bleak society of squalor and hopelessness overlooked by the rich and the powerful. The tone of the movie speaks for itself from the get-go: its grey and dull colour grading reflects Arthur’s view of the world and the pain of his psyche. We get to see his struggle to genuinely smile like a clown right before he goes out for a botched job before the towering typography of the title screen comes up like the imposing infrastructures of the giant city, bringing Arthur to a perspective of how small and pathetic he is in this universe. Long story of two hours short, we get to see and experience, as an audience, Arthur’s slow spiral into madness from a tormented soul of Gotham’s gritty and harsh environment, tortured, until he snaps and finds his iconic persona most movie-goers and comic book readers today are so familiar with. It is the most unsettling and riveting ride you will ever face, and oh, how much will you enjoy how discomforting it can be and how conflicted you will feel when you leave the cinema!
I would argue that every cinematic aspect in Joker serves one purpose: To make you feel like Arthur. The cinematography, colour grading, and audio works in beautiful harmony not just for thematic observance; more so, it feels invasive, with the countless close-ups that build tension while you not just empathise, but (if you engage yourself with the movie enough), allow you to carry the very same anxiety that Arthur carries throughout the film. You can see every facial expression, almost hear every unspoken word from Phoenix’s performance, fully understand how painful his forced, guttural laughs can be, and tell yourself: “I feel what he feels. I know what is coming. I think it’s going to be chaotically beautiful. I know Arthur Fleck. No, I know KNOW Arthur Fleck.”. You would be so used to Arthur’s pain that the very first frame where he embraces as being a beacon of the iconic villain, it becomes jarring in the entirety of your viewing experience, and (because the movie is called “Joker”, it’s all about him and how our ‘protagonist’ acquires his victory) when he rises from the ashes of his tormented soul, you cannot help but smile even though it feels so wrong. The movie plays with your feelings and screams justification for a character they make you feel so much about even though your sane mind pulls you in the other direction.
That does not mean that Joker brings you a message where you are supposed to embrace the madness, though. In fact, the movie trusts in your personal humanity to struggle with the method to Arthur’s madness. With all the pain of the titular character it presents to viewers, allowing them to understand the reasons behind the chaos he allows, it bets on their moral compass to guide them into teaching themselves what is right and what is wrong. When Arthur fully embraces his side of being the image of the Joker, I felt genuinely happy for him, but I also felt an immense feeling of guilt from my happiness for the character. As much as these two hours of the cinematic masterpiece has presented fully on the table his struggles with insanity and the hurt he went through for his whole life, I was unsure if I could look past his trespasses. I was unsure if I could console his pain. I felt good that he found his zen. I did not feel good with what has transpired. And so, the reflection proceeds to issues past a justification of the character based on his life experiences: It moves on to how you could actually be with someone that is similarly tormented and be there for them and share their pain when Arthur’s character so closely reflects those of similar depression and anxiety experiences from the friends of your everyday lives. From there, it brings a greater level of inner discourse because this character study has confronted an aspect of me that can be familiar to everyone else: When someone opens up to you with their inner demons, how do you reciprocate them as to not direct your friends mentally where they are not supposed to go unintentionally. I found myself carrying Arthur’s anxiety on top of all of these visited fears even way after the credits roll – You cannot discount this post-movie anxiety as part of the viewing experience, making Joker a movie to be remembered, invading into your life, contributing to that experience when you step out of that theatre.
From this point, it has been made pretty clear that Joaquin Phoenix has more than done his part in playing Arthur Fleck. That being said, chronologically, it is a movie set in a certain fictional Batman universe outside of the DCEU. Yes, there is a Bruce Wayne, but because the movie is all about the Joker, most of the characters’ existence are almost inconsequential. Their acting serves their purpose and that is it. If you are stepping into Joker thinking that it is a movie about Batman, you have missed the point (The movie is called “Joker” for a reason). In fact, it works great as a standalone movie without the existence of a Batman, even though the punchline (ending sequence) of the film is one that is profound, involving the familiar origins of Bruce Wayne. The writing for the movie is so strong that even if every element of a Batman universe is taken out of the equation of the movie, it will still work as a great movie for a deep-dive character study of one who goes through psychosis. In retrospect, it feels like an enhanced level of storytelling when you slap on the fact that everything in the movie exists in a particular Batman universe. The chronology is simple and easy to follow, and it takes a backseat: Don’t watch the movie for what happens, watch it like how you would watch a periodical drama.
The everyday movie-goer may find this film exceptionally tiring with a whopping viewing time of two hours. I would argue that that is the whole point: It is meta in sharing the pains of anxiety. The two-hour film is tense with anxious blips from the first frame to the last, and that reflects what anxiety and depression should be: an experience that is hyper tiresome and unrelenting, often taking hours to deal with – You only get two. Be grateful. Joker is an amazing movie. So much so that it is regarded as the best one that I have ever watched so far this year (and hell, it definitely is a title with a benchmark set so high this year that I won’t know what movie would be better). Everything that makes a film great in its surface contributes to what really matters to the themes the film tackles – It is a character study that I would not mind diving deep in and sharing in his delusions over and over again because of its complexities.
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