Reel Review - Joker (2019)
Sure, it’s dark—as in woe-is-the-world, suicide-inducing blackness—but Joker is an experimental project that, if we’re lucky, marks a quantum leap forward in the sub-genre of dramatic comic book inspired films.
Arthur Fleck is an aspiring stand-up comedian who works as a party clown and lives in poverty with his mother in Gotham City. Struggling with an unspecified mental illness that causes hysterical and uncontrollable laughter, Fleck finds himself unable to navigate in society, losing his job, alienating his neighbours and falling victim to the brutish citizens of Gotham. As tensions in the city rise over a worker strike that has garbage piling up on the streets, Fleck’s delusions intensify and he falls through the cracks of social services and into a dangerous isolation.
While Joker is a big studio production with Hollywood heavyweights behind and in front of its camera, it doesn’t feel like your typical blockbuster. From its pre-pre-production stages when it was just a shapeless passion of lead actor Joaquin Phoenix to make a comic book inspired character study, to its controversial release and reception, Joker feels like an art project made by a handful of intrepid and talented—if disabused—film school dropouts that got picked up by a big studio for distribution.
Despite being comic book related, this was never a bankable ace-in-the-hole for Warner Bros. It wasn’t a superhero movie guaranteed to smash the box office nor was it a dramatic commentary on the latest social/political hot button topic guaranteed to rack up awards and accolades. It was a curious and unfamiliar blend of the two.
Perhaps starting with 1994’s The Crow and including Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy and 2017’s Logan, Joker is the latest installation in a sub-genre of comic book films that dare to pull the substance out of the ink in the panels of their source material. So, while the shared Phoenix-Phillips desire to make a character-study film surrounding a comic book character may not have been novel in its premise, it was novel in its ambition.
Whereas previous films in this sub-genre built their comic book world on top of solid, real-world footing full of philosophy and metaphor and whatever-else-not, Joker builds its own world and fills in the edges with comic book lore. This can make it feel, from some perspectives, like the comic book material is superfluous—tacked on like an endless stream of hashtags to a Twitter post for the sole purpose of duping a wider audience into buying tickets. Indeed, Arthur Fleck could have been anyone—he needn’t necessarily have been the Joker.
But, from another perspective, pushing the comic book material to the edges acts like a frame for the movie, giving this strange, complex and intricate story a familiar shape that we can recognize and better understand. The depth and grandiosity of Fleck’s despair and hate, the scope of his evilness, would have been improbable and unbelievable if he were anyone other than the infamous Joker. And, yet, it’s an intensity of emotion that is very much real.
That intensity of emotion is, of course, carried in large part by Joaquin Phoenix’s performance—perhaps bringing some of the frustrating desperation he had for a role like this with him to the screen—which ranks, along with Adam Driver’s performance in Marriage Story, as one of the best screen performances of the century thus far. But enough has been said and written about Phoenix’s performance and we can’t ignore Todd Phillips’ accomplishments or the accomplishments of the other artists on this unique project.
Some have chosen to highlight the film’s direction and obvious resemblance to Taxi Driver as a negative, calling it derivative or unoriginal. But Martin Scorsese was a part of the production of this film from the beginning and Phillips has made no qualms in discussing from whence he drew influence. Joker was always going to be something of a Frankenstein, pulling from the comic book world and the real world alike to make a new kind of monster. Phillips’ executed this film with enough originality for reasonable critics not to complain about bits and pieces that look like they’ve been borrowed. They have been, get over it.
We would be remiss not to mention Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score. It is just the kind of striking and original sound that a ground-breaking film like Joker deserves. For all the praise Guðnadóttir could be given here, her sweep of the 92nd Academy Awards, 77th Golden Globe Awards and 72nd British Academy Film Awards for best original score in a competitive year that included impressive turns from Thomas Newman for 1917 and Michael Giacchino for Jojo Rabbit speaks for itself. It was also a breakout year for veteran cinematographer Lawrence Sher who racked up many of his first nominations for the gritty yet sympathetic appearance of Joker.
Maybe it’s just the MCU-fanboy speaking, but off the back of the critical success of Joker, with any luck, we’ll get a cinematic universe of standalone films in this sub-genre that continue to elevate comic book material onscreen to the heights they have attained on the strip.