Film Review: Joker ★★★★1/2

Joker Embraces the Darkness to Make a Haunting Unforgettable Film

Joker is an uncomfortable watch, but director Todd Phillips intends it to be uncomfortable. Anytime the protagonist of a film is homicidal and unstable the audience should feel uneasy. While Joker is not revolutionary filmmaking, it is unique to the genre of comic-book-inspired film. Embracing the darkness for which DC Comics and Batman and Joker in particular are known, with a remarkable performance from Joaquin Phoenix, Phillips has delivered a highly memorable, disturbing and truly remarkable film.

Joker is an origin story for a character that has no canonized origins in the DC Comic universe. There are some murky allusions, and even vague elements of backstory, but no definitive inception. Joker features some recognizable elements and plot points from the pages of the comic books from which the character arises; moments that may serve as anchor points or Easter eggs for longtime readers, but that will be invisible to audience members unfamiliar with the source material.

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Joker. (Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures)

Phillips and Phoenix lean into the unreliable narrator that is Arthur Fleck to divorce the narrative, and the audience, from reality. Phoenix’s portrayal of Fleck humanizes a character that is as separate from humanity as he is from reality. However, Phoenix and Phillips restrain the humanization of Joker just enough to keep the empathy of the audience at arm’s length. While not shying away from the mental illness afflicting his protagonist, Phillips never uses it as an excuse for Fleck’s embrace of his darkest homicidal urges. As Arthur Fleck transforms into Joker the new light shed on this character does nothing to diminish his darkness, if anything it amplifies it, making Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal the most terrifying Joker yet. There will inevitably be comparisons made between the actors that have portrayed the character on screen in the past, with plenty of room for debate, but with the new dimension Phoenix brings there is a strong argument that his performance is now the definitive live-action portrayal.

While the events and imagery in the film are horrific at times, they are framed and presented with such care that in the abstract the horror was maddeningly beautiful. From the framing to a tonal shift in palette, Todd Phillips exhibits an impressive proficiency in utilizing every element at his disposal to add to the narrative. No single moment of Joker felt out of place, unnecessary, or over-indulgent. Although the most remarkable, and possibly, the most effective element is Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score which adds an evocative atmosphere of menace, melancholy and madness. It’s the music that punctuates and often drives the film towards the edge.

Disquieting and fascinating, it is easy to forget Joker is a comic-book-inspired movie. While some may search for deeper meaning and social commentary, others may see a fantasy intended to simply entertain. With Joker, like many movies, meaning is in the eye of the beholder, and what you take from Joker is no more than you bring with you. Any way you slice it, Joker is a film that audiences will not soon forget.

Joker is in US theaters Thursday October 3.

By Kyle J. Steenblik

Official synopsis: Joker centers around an origin of the iconic arch nemesis and is an original, standalone story not seen before on the big screen. Todd Phillips’ exploration of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man disregarded by society, is not only a gritty character study, but also a broader cautionary tale.

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