I feel as though this review could just be me repeating Joaquin Phoenix’s name over and over again, and it would be perfectly acceptable. Phoenix delivers the best performance of the year in this Todd Phillips directed, dare I say it — masterpiece. Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, he is a street performer who dresses as a clown. It’s a rough business. He gets beaten up a lot, made fun of, then has to go home to take care of an addled mother. Plus there’s one big problem: He’s got a disease that forces him to laugh out of context. And anytime you witness Fleck’s laugh, it grinds into you. Every bit of Phoenix’s performance is difficult to watch and yet somehow mesmerizing at the same time.
Joker is undoubtedly an unreliable narrator. It’s possible that everything that happens in the film actually happens. It’s also possible he was in Arkham Asylum and imagined the whole thing. After all, Joker has been known for saying, “If I have a backstory, I’d rather it be multiple choice.” And figuring out what’s real and what’s not is the fun of the film. Fleck has a romance that doesn’t work out the way we think it does. And even a childhood that doesn’t work out the way he wants it to. Aside from Phoenix’s performance, there are other aspects of the film that are significantly astounding including the cinematography and the photography.
There are shots throughout this film that look gorgeous. One, in particular, is when Arthur is walking up the stairs after losing his sign, and we see him centered around a world that so clearly doesn’t want him. It’s colorful and dark at the same time. Also, the score of the film is tremendous. Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, an Icelandic cellist, used haunting chords to capture the descent into madness that is Arthur Fleck into the Joker.
“If I have a backstory, I’d rather it be multiple choice.” – The Joker
Still, despite it’s gritty and true to real-world circumstances it levels at its audience, Joker‘s true strength is that it is still a comic book film. Once the transformation into the iconic Clown Prince of Crime is complete, the film feels like one we’ve seen before, albeit through a much different route. Phoenix is in no way similar to Jack Nicholson‘s performance in the 1989 Batman, nowhere close to Caesar Romero in the 1966 version, and not even as psychotic or unhinged as Heath Ledger‘s Batman in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
The argument could be made that Phoenix doesn’t really play The Joker. He plays Arthur Fleck, and it’s possible, if all of this is in his head, then he just imagined himself as The Joker, while the one we all know and love from the comics has yet to emerge. If that’s the case, then this film really is dark and unsettling and merely used the moniker of Joker to explore a deep character piece on mental illness, and what a unmerciful class system can do to the downtrodden and forgotten masses.
The colors, cinematography, and writing, all tell a story with more to say than just introducing you to the iconic villian of a masked crusader. We are enveloped by the story, engrossed in the performances, and enthralled by the horror, violence, and tragedy we’ve just witnessed. And possibly, the most twisted among us are curious if there will be more. Arthur is a captivating character with the charm and frenzy to command us all to follow him. That’s why he could be The Joker, but that’s also why he could just be crazy.
Joker is able to tell a story, in a way, that is strangely necessary to the time we’re in. If chaos is allowed to settle, it will only grow. Joker is a forewarning. A terrifying glimpse at a possible and unwanted future. It has less to do with who’s actually wearing the makeup, and more to do with who among us is gonna play the clown?