Dark as sin without even a hint of sunshine across its two hours of minimalistic brilliance, Joker is not a film for the faint of heart. As I sat in the theater Saturday night for my second viewing of perhaps the most gripping film I’ve ever seen, I groaned as I saw parents leading their toddlers into the front row knowing full well the horrors that would haunt those kids’ nightmares for weeks to come. But for those who can stomach its subject matter (and are old enough to appreciate it), Joker is an unforgettable character study for the ages.
In stark contrast to the direction comic book movies like the character-stuffed Avengers series has taken, Joker is an incredibly sparse film with so few main characters you could count them on one hand. It chronicles a rough few weeks in the life of Arther Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally unstable, middle-aged clown for hire that lives with his senile mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and dreams of being a stand-up comic and earning the adulation of his hero Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Fleck is afflicted by a mental handicap that causes him to break into uncontrollable laughter, often at the most inopportune moments possible. In the film’s opening minutes, Phoenix plays Fleck as a perennial sweetheart who gets beaten up by teenagers and couldn’t possibly be capable of the unspeakable horrors carried out by Heath Ledger’s famous portrayal of the infamous villain in The Dark Knight. But a series of unfortunate events along with some genuinely startling revelations send Fleck down a path of madness that he literally embraces with open arms. It’s an incredibly believable, grounded transformation that you need to see to believe.
It’s no secret that director Todd Phillips, who is more known for light-hearted comedies like The Hangover and Borat rather than tortured thrillers like Joker, used Martin Scorsese films like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy for his inspiration; film buffs will find the allegories to these classics throughout. But Phillips’ greatest contribution is the consistent feeling of dread that pervades the entire experience from the opening shot of Arther putting on his clown makeup in a dingy back room to a terrifying scene on the outskirts of an elementary school. That is, of course, next to his insistence to casting Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role (he later said in interviews that Phoenix was the only actor he considered during the writing process). Shot for shot, scene for scene, Phoenix’s performance is absolutely brilliant and an easy slam dunk for Oscar season (if anybody even still cares). Phoenix’s portrayal of a wide-eyed dreamer turned nihilistic madman may just be the single greatest performance I’ve ever seen; every moment is convincing and his ability to make you uncomfortable without saying a word is unparalleled. In a lot of ways, Phoenix’s performance is the only thing that really matters in Joker; there isn’t a single scene without his presence, nor would you ever want there to be. You just can’t take your eyes off him.
While both Phillips and Phoenix have both revealed that the middle-aged actor didn’t have to isolate himself and dive into method acting like Heath Ledger or Jared Leto did for their portrayal of the man who laughs, what did serve as a significant inspiration to Phoenix while on set was the film’s haunting score composed by Icelandic musician Hildur Guðnadóttir. Breaking with tradition, Phillips actually had Guonadottir compose the score prior to filming so that he could play a scene’s corresponding music for Phoenix during filming. The results are some incredibly expressive scenes, particularly a bone-chilling dance scene in a dimly lit bathroom that Phoenix improvised as the music played. Phillips told Phoenix that he envisioned Fleck as a man “with music in his heart” from the beginning and with Guonadottir’s score along with some old time classics like Sinatra’s “Smile” and “Send in the Clowns,” Phoenix brings that vision to life in a truly unforgettable way.
As great as the movie is, perhaps the most fascinating discussion point regarding Joker is the firestorm of controversy that has surrounded it for weeks leading up to its release. Based on little more than its two astounding trailers (two of the greatest I’ve ever seen), some critics and narrow-minded social justice warriors decried the film as glorifying incel culture without even seeing the film for themselves before sounding the alarm. While some thought regarding the film’s portrayal of mental illness and the way society responds to it is prudent, I came away with a lot more to think about than I expected going in. The film tackles uncomfortable concepts like lust, isolation, familial abuse, and madness alongside more political issues like gun accessibility, public funding for social programs, insufficient housing, and income inequality in a surprisingly astute way. It doesn’t dish out any easy answers either; movie-goers will be discussing some of the issues raised here for months to come.
In the modern movie landscape, it’s hard to think of a more fascinating film than Joker. Armed with some shocking narrative twists and reveals, a litany of gripping scenes that will stick with you for days on end, career-defining performances and thought-provoking social commentary, Joker would stand out on its own outside of the firestorm of controversy that surrounds it. But thanks to its portrayal of the silver screen’s most captivating villain, it has reached an audience broad enough to spark a litany of conversations about society and the human condition. As a comic book movie, Joker easily stands atop its contemporaries, though to even classify it as such does a disservice to the masterpiece Phoenix, Phillips and company have created (and an even greater blow to its competitors who just don’t stand a chance). Beyond that characterization, this film is a cinematic event that simply cannot be missed. Just don’t bring your kids; they won’t know what hit them.