Film Review – Joker (2019)
Joker is not a film that ever needed to exist. That thought was repeated again and again when the project was first announced. We had gone from the iconic Joker of Heath Ledger to the dismal emo Joker of Jared Leto and throwing another wild card into that with Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker was too much to handle. Those first set photos did not inspire any fanfare, and the leaked script was majorly panned by those who took the time to read it. However, the film’s trailers inspired some hope that this was a unique film, not meant to go up against other films that starred the Joker. I went into the screening with an open mind, more so since its stellar premiere at the Venice Film Festival.
Simply put, Joker is an origin film. There is no way to compare it to other films that have the Joker character in them because the timelines don’t match up. Through the film, I thought it might be set in the late 1970s to the 1980s, but one of the last images I took note of was an Energizer Bunny commercial that did not start airing until 1988. Given this Joker “comes of age” in 1988, his timeline does not match up with The Dark Knight or Suicide Squad. I suspected when the first trailer debuted, that it might match up to Christopher Nolan’s Batman films because of Brett Cullen’s role in Joker, alas he is not playing the same character. Director Todd Phillips, along with co-screenwriter Scott Silver chose to distance their Joker from any other modern version. Having said this, this is still a character owned by DC Comics, and they would have to approve of Phillips and Silver’s take on one of its most iconic villains.
Joker is entirely Joaquin Phoenix’s film. The depiction of Arthur Fleck and his slow transformation into Joker would be an actor’s dream role. The film relies completely on Phoenix’s skills as he is the entire focus of Joker. The supporting actors are just that, supporting Phoenix’s role. Phoenix takes what craziness we have seen in other Jokers, erases it, and develops his unique take on the character. Arthur is not a super-villain or a criminal mastermind. He doesn’t have the social skills or a high enough IQ to do what we would expect a Joker to be able to do in the city of Gotham.
Arthur wants to be happy and make others happy, but he has a screw loose (okay, maybe a few) and comes off weird to just about everyone with which he comes into contact. That’s not to say that he is not trying to be normal, but the environment around him is not conducive to that ever happening. It is challenging to analyze the journey of Arthur to becoming the Joker without giving away plot details that would spoil the film. As previously mentioned, Phillips and Silver created a new world for this Joker to exist in, and surprises appear throughout even though some may be familiar to fans. Suffice it to say; this Joker may be a good case study of nature versus nurture.
The crowning achievement of Joker, other than Joaquin Phoenix’s acting, is the film’s score. Hildur Guðnadóttir composed one of the most iconic scores of the year. It is not an understatement that her score made the film for me. She knew precisely when to increase the dramatic music to indicate trouble ahead, but not too early so as to be forewarned about a pivotal moment. What I would describe as Joker’s theme is first fully realized when he commits his first crime. There is a hint of it beforehand in another scene that is distressing for Arthur, but the theme materializes after he runs into a park’s public bathroom, locks himself in this disgusting shelter, and begins to dance. I would describe this dancing as similar to ballet or Tai Chi, but as he expresses himself in this form, a cello overpowers the audience with a haunting melody. This theme is repeated as well as his dancing in the rest of the film. If Phillips took a musical route similar to Suicide Squad, Joker would be trash. And I don’t think some other composer’s classical take on Joker would have been as effective either. Hildur Guðnadóttir elevated Joker to another level, one beyond just what is being seen on the screen. If I had looked her up beforehand, I could have guessed that this score would be unique considering her scores for Chernobyl and Sicario: Day of the Soldado. She also previously worked on Arrival with the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson who also composed the score for Sicario. His influence on her work is evident. I am eager to see the film again in IMAX to be surrounded by Hildur Guðnadóttir’s beautiful music once more.
I feel the need to point out that Joker is rated R, and this is not a film that people need to bring their kids to see. There are moments of extreme violence that would have haunted my dreams as a young kid. Joker is not a superhero film, and I would say that it is not even a villain film either. It is indeed an origin story of the Joker, but without the smarts to pull off anything off that we have seen from the Joker’s previous incarnations. He inspires the city through an act of violence, which evolves slowly from a movement to an all-out uprising. The film is beautiful in a way that is hard to describe. The setting is stark and cruel, not giving its inhabitants much hope. The Joker decides instead of trying to be happy to inhabit and feed off of that cruelty and despair. As the film ends, it is natural to think if it will have a sequel. The content is there for the story to continue, but as a stand-alone film, I believe it will have more impact, letting the audience gnaw on what was seen and make their own conclusions of where the story will lead.