Long before Warner Bros. and DC’s Joker released, there was already intense controversy around the film. Todd Phillips’ sophomore dramatic feature was meant to be an unflinching look into the mind of a psychopath. And by choosing to go for an iconic Batman villain, as his subject matter, there was more scrutiny over an ultra-violent psychological drama.
Despite the existence of films like Taxi Driver and Nightcrawler, the movie, being centered on a charismatic mentally unstable murderer caused much debate over whether or not the film should be seen. However, since its release, the polarized critical response has done little to prevent the film from becoming the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time.
And for a good reason, while the Batman villain picture isn’t without its problems, it is a far cry from the incel-manufacturing machine some critics have been claiming it is. What’s curious about the discourse over the movie is that the unnecessary focus on the film’s possibility of igniting violent tendencies in people overshadows the actual issues the comic book movie has.
For starters, the movie takes entirely too much from Scorsese’s ‘The King of Comedy’, and in the name of homage, begins to border on plagiarism. Director Todd Phillips’ ritualistic tribute to Scorsese doesn’t just extend to cute imitations of Taxi Driver but also practically borrow all the unique ingredients of the films above.
It also seems that at times, Phillips is unaware of the themes he is touching upon and the problems he is unearthing about society today, with the script lacking nuanced. And yet, what works about Joker is simply sublime.
The film, despite operating on a smaller budget than your average superhero flick, has excellent production value, transforming modern-day New York to a seventies version of Gotham that is the best adaptation of the city to date. The movie is unlike any other with comic book roots and serves as a glorious reminder of the potential of graphic novels and comic books.
And while it may seem easy to dismiss the film as a watered-down version of a Scorsese film, with the film borrowing so much from the acclaimed director, the movie is defiant in its own right. Joker’s score by Chernobyl composer Hildur Guonadottir is haunting and makes certain scenes instantly iconic.
Cinematographer Lawrence Sher’s cinematography proves to be equally dazzling, immersing us into Arthur’s life and the way he sees the world around him. Then there is Joaquin Phoenix, who stars as the titular character and pulls off one of the most breathtaking transformations of his career yet, disappearing into the skin of Arthur Fleck.
The actor has a knack for seamlessly morphing into entirely new people in each his film, from his turn as country legend Johnny Cash, to a lonely widower in the not so distant future, in Her. In Arthur, though, Phoenix unleashes a different side of himself, playing a man who is not only mentally ill and wronged by those around him but also a megalomaniac waiting to break free from his cage.
Phoenix doesn’t just carry the movie, appearing in nearly every frame and shot of the movie; he is also responsible for lifting the film whenever it exposes cracks. The script itself is nothing remarkable, but it is Phoenix who convincingly manages to turn every weak line sound like gospel.
Phoenix is a revelation in the film, terrifying and bewitching to behold, giving us a version of Joker that is unlike any we’ve seen before. His acting career has been filled with memorable performances, but Joker is perhaps his pièce de résistance and a role that will firmly put him in the pantheon of all-time great actors.
Others in the film are also worth mentioning. Zazie Beetz as a kind neighbor Arthur takes a liking to, Frances Conroy as Fleck’s sick mother and Robert De Niro playing a popular talk show; all manage to make their characters feel lived in despite not having much screen time. Joker is first and foremost a character study, and a unique one at that, so the lack of character development for others is intentional and makes sense within the story.
Ultimately, while Joker isn’t a perfect film by any stretch, it is raw and arresting and has something to say. The movie is exquisitely produced and marvelously acted, comfortably standing out as the best Hollywood film of the year.