“JOKER” starring Joaquin Phoenix is right around the corner. Todd Phillips directs this one and pens the script alongside Scott Silver, with the talents of Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, and Brett Cullen filling out the cast. This is the story of Arthur Fleck. A man that has been disregarded by society. A man that has seemingly failed at being a stand-up comedian. A man that has a social awkwardness and a form of mental illness who finds the system also has pushed him to the side. A man that will find the hate all around him fueling an internal yearning for violence that will inevitably culminate, turning him into the persona of the Joker.
“Joker” is one of my most anticipated movies of the year. But at the same time, I was sort of torn about it. If you’ve seen many of my reviews you will know that I love character performances and more so, character driven story-lines. That is what appealed to me about this one. Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker, my favorite comic-book villain of all-time is certainly something that has a ton of potential. Joaquin Phoenix think of him what you will, is an incredible talent. He has shown he can disappear into a role and with a film like this, having a true character actor in the lead is a huge bonus.
On the other hand. I wasn’t sure this origin story was something I wanted. I know there’s been backdrop on the character before. But things being left to the imagination to me can sometimes be better for building an enticing mystique to a character. But we want to know everything. So, we get prequels, and remakes like Rob Zombie’s “Halloween” that despite some intrigue, tell too much of the story killing all the mystery. However, with so many versions of the Joker story being told over the years, and the potential of a darker comic-book toned movie that wasn’t trying to sell toys, or build sequels was something that got me excited.
Overall, I thought this was a very good film carried by a phenomenal performance that was just shy of being a great movie. After watching the trailers, I expected a visually stunning film and it was. I expected Phoenix to be great as Arthur Fleck and he without question delivers a haunting downward spiral. Todd Phillips and Scott Silver’s script was the aspect of the film that I was curious about. I was interested in what this origin of Arthur Fleck would look like as we peek into the mind of insanity. And it turns out this inside-look we get is a surprisingly familiar one. The story presented here was the weakest link in my opinion and that was a letdown.
I’m sure many will mention this film has strong similarities to that of “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” and it certainly does. The progression of this character loosing mental control was very much in the same path as De Niro’s character in “Taxi Driver”. Arthur Flecks infatuation with talk-show host Murray Franklin was a rehash of the story angle from “The King of Comedy”. And while I did mildly hinder the intensity of the story at times, it was still a nice blend for serving as the template to Arthur Fleck. The Joker is the ‘Clown Prince of Crime’ and this story did a great job of laying the groundwork for that. In certain areas.
I will give this story credit though because despite some similar beats in the progression it still was able to weave in some excellent new elements for the character. Arthur has this condition that causes him to involuntarily laugh when the situation doesn’t really warrant that type of reaction. On paper it seems like a trope that seems pulled from the comic-books but when it’s delivered through the performance of Phoenix there’s an eerie uneasiness to it. These scenes grabbed my attention and Phoenix captured the pain and lack of control perfectly to suit the character that we know who has the unmistakably sinister laugh.
This film did create a haunting depiction of Arthur Fleck’s decent into the persona of the Joker. But I wanted a more unique one to be honest. I think Phoenix in this role greatly elevates the material because there were sections that dragged a bit. This is a two-hour movie with a 90-minute story and during the second-act it was noticeable. Now this is a visually stunning film because of its gritty appeal so the atmosphere it creates is an immersive one. It does help pass through some lulls, but it also felt a little repetitive. I think this is where the film tried to be a little too artistic in its visual story-telling.
The depiction of Arthur Fleck from Phoenix is impressive to say the least. This character has been done many times before, but Phoenix was still very much able to make it feel like his own. He invested in this role by losing more than 50 pounds and it created a creepy character from a visual aspect alone. But through his method I thought Phoenix did his best to explore the mental aspects of the character. There was a layering to the downward spiral of Arthur Fleck and Phoenix hit every uneasy beat along the way. His laugh and facial expressions were excellent, and his unassuming posturing captured a vulnerability and frailness to the character that I loved.
But with the progression of this narrative I felt it forced him to repeat too many actions. It felt like the filmmakers found a few great things they wanted to focus on from the performance of Phoenix and left it at that. They relied on Phoenix a little too much with his mannerisms and physical acting. Which don’t get me wrong, were amazing. But he was equally as chilling in the dialogue driven scenes to which there wasn’t enough of in my opinion. His delivery was calculated, and his timing was impeccable, yet the spotlight was routinely on the visual. And not exploring the mental issues he had and how they came about.
I honestly wanted more of a mental dive into who this person was. There were sections of his backdrop that I felt were the most unique and they were brushed over quickly with exposition style dialogue and not given enough time. Instead we’re given familiar scenes of a man facing torment that we’ve seen a good amount of other characters face as well in other movies. We get a lot of Phoenix awkwardly posing and dancing that at first sight was ominous. But this visual depiction lost little impact each time they were repeated. And I think some of those minutes could’ve been spent developing a better understanding of who this man was from the ground up to frame his mental foundation deeper.
I did though very much enjoy the 70’s backdrop and the economic class struggle going on at the time. I thought how this social turbulence fueled the actions of Fleck were nicely constructed. It created a version of Gotham told through the eyes of the other perspective and this focus on the darker side was very appealing to me. This didn’t really feel like a comic-book movie and I loved it because when the small references would drop in, they would create an interesting depth to the story. Like going back to a comic movie where a city is in violent oppression with a superhero needed to save the day. Only seeing that story told from the viewpoint of the oppressed, and it was gripping to see.
Visually this was a beautiful movie. The direction was much like that of 70’s cinema with simple techniques and little camera movement. This allows the backdrops and the performances to carry the attention and it works. The creation of the city landscape is gritty and ominous which matches the tone perfectly. There is a garbage-strike going on in the time-period, so trash bags are on every street which created a grimy mood to each scene. Almost as if you could never feel safe.
There’s an underlying tension going on I enjoyed, and it’s complemented by a musical score that truly is the heartbeat of the movie.The movements of the Arthur Fleck and the methodical camera pans have a flow that is timed perfectly to the score. It was elegant while at the same time cold and haunting. Which complemented the bizarre performance from Phoenix as good as you could hope. The artistic effort is great in this one and the performances were as well. I just wished it would’ve all been wrapped into a story that took me to places that would make me experience torment like I had never seen. And while this one was dark and twisted, it wasn’t as demented as I had hoped.
It felt too reliant on replicating the vibe of a Scorsese crime-drama and while the combination works, it’s still derivative. It was able to give me something different, while at the same time something similar and I enjoyed it. I went home from the theater and had this movie on my mind long after an when rethinking about the layers this movie brought the character, I felt it all worked. Could it have been better? I think so. Simply by having a story that didn’t fit into the template of another’s creation. One that wouldn’t kill a lot of the unpredictability. But it was a still a highly engaging movie that showcases an award worthy performance from Joaquin Phoenix.