Joker was co-written and directed by Todd Phillips and stars Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro and Zazie Beetz.
It’s 1981 and Gotham City is in the midst of a vile trash strike, clogging the streets and suffocating its inhabitants.
The story focuses on Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a down on his luck pursuing comedy. Suffering from a condition that forces him to break into hysterical laughter without warning, cripples him physically and plays havoc on his mental health.
When he is allowed to perform stand-up comedy for a famous talk show host, Murray Franklin (De Niro), he is shunned and laughed at. This causes his mind to fracture further, turning himself into the insane homicidal clown known as the Joker.
Phoenix is astonishing as Fleck, a lonely, child-like man who lives with his mother (Frances Conroy), who has trouble connecting with people.
He manages to create a sympathetic portrayal of a broken man, shunned by almost everyone he comes into contact with. But there is also brooding darkness and an unhinged nature to the performance which makes it terrifying.
Throughout the film, he takes long pauses to stare and smile shyly at other characters like his neighbour Sophie (Beetz) and it’s just one of the most unsettling things and I couldn’t get that out of my head!
The way he carries himself physically is important as he goes from being unconfident to confident as he descends in madness.
His maniacal laugh is stomach-churning and ties into his character in a clever way.
As his mental state deteriorates, his interactions with others become more violent, his tone never betrays him. He stays calm showing immense control over the scenes and displays a masterclass in acting.
Everything about Phoenix here is perfect. His take on Joker is unlike anything I have ever seen and is now seared into my brain thanks to his immaculate performance. Yes, Heath Ledger’s portrayal is iconic, but Phoenix creates something truly scary – something which I never felt with Ledger. Fleck is the best Joker.
De Niro channels his characters from The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver for his work as Franklin – a flamboyant talk show host who both Fleck and his mother idolise. His performance and sections of the film entire pay homage to Scorsese’s early work but give a lot of agency to the world-building of Gotham.
De Niro works well as a late-night host in the eighties, his charm and mocking grin look genuine and his fast and witty jokes evoke Letterman and Carson very well.
His entertaining personality clashes perfectly with Fleck’s own; in later scenes when they are paired together, the atmosphere is light but also intense and nerve-shredding.
De Niro tries to bring joy into a world of poverty and misery, anyone other than him would have sold the character short. His charisma and charm help move the film along, making the nihilistic world a little less dark.
Beetz provides a humanistic performance. She is unsure of Fleck and even comes to check on him from time to time but as she tries to help him, she finds a deeply disturbed man torn apart by his condition. Her role is small but Beetz does well against Phoenix and handles herself against his overwhelming presence.
Phillips and his team have created a visually stunning, well shot and expertly conducted piece of film. His Gotham is the most realistic looking of all the films.
The grungy streets and run-down buildings are wonderfully period-accurate and help the film’s sense of time. The city has been infested with rats tearing apart the trash left by the striking workers, which creates a hell of a dark and dingy world for Fleck to inhabit. Philips is most well-known for his Hangover trilogy, but with Joker, he stretches his creativity with interesting ideas and camera work.
He wears his influences on his sleeve sure, but this gives the film a visual flair which is truly unique for a comic book adaption, loose as that may be.
The cameras dance and twirl with Phoenix as he becomes more unhinged. The fluidity mixed with the lighting and set design is something to take note of.
The musical score by Icelandic composer Hildur Gudnatóttir is teeth-gnashing and mind distorting, with screeching wails and piercing shrieks. The film looks and sounds amazing, giving the story a place and tone that helps it evolve and grow into something very disturbing and darker than anything you’ve seen before.
Joker represents another massive shift for the genre. Whereas Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy shocked with its dark and gritty tone and Ledger’s performance, Phillips and Phoenix re-invent what a comic book film should be. It doesn’t even feel like one, which was the point, but the team executed it so well that I forgot what I was watching. Everything from the acting to the cinematography to the music is excellent.
The film is shocking and brutally violent which might turn viewers away, but enjoyable. This startling film is an absolute triumph and completely redefines what this genre should be. I’m not into comics but the Joker is an interesting character and this film changes the game for him. This is by far my favourite comic book film – yes, it’s better than the Nolan trilogy.
Philips and Phoenix are wonderful and created a film wholly unique from anything else on the market. Whatever controversies you see on social media or the news, don’t listen to them. Go see this instead.