As I sit here writing this review, before a poster of the Joker himself that has been on my wall for years, I’m quickly reminded of just how long I’ve been a fan of one of fiction’s most complex and well-known villains. The character has existed for over 75 years, yet still remains hugely popular in the eyes of the public today, a testament to his ever-present cultural relevance and status as a twisted mirror image of the time in which said public lives.
2019’s Joker, directed by Todd Philips, attempts to use this version of the character and his tragic origin to shed light on just what kind of world could spawn such a disturbed individual, one that is destined to become Batman’s arch nemesis. After two hours of increasingly disturbing imagery and a career-defining performance from Joaquin Phoenix, it seems to suggest that very world might not be too far removed from our own.
Those expecting some acid-spitting flowers and a Prince soundtrack akin to Joker’s appearances in previous visual media such as Tim Burton’s 1989 Bat-flick should really take heed before approaching the cinema this time. This is very much a character study film, and a dark one at that. The film chronicles the sometimes tragic, sometimes brutal descent of Arthur Fleck, a failing clown for hire, into madness. It’s a journey carried solely on the sickly shoulders of a wholly committed Phoenix. There’s not a scene in this film without his presence, and what a presence it is. As the only fully realised character in the film, we’re given plenty of time to simmer in Fleck’s trauma as the world around him slowly crumbles, spurring him to don the iconic green hair and crimson grin we’ve come to know. Phoenix’s use of Joker’s iconic laugh as something that causes him physical pain is one of many interesting nuances that allow his version of the villain to stand out amongst past interpretations, and makes for one of the finest cinematic performances in my own recent memory. Watching Arthur gradually crack and heave until he finally lashes out in the film’s gripping climax makes it easy to see him landing plenty of Oscar buzz as the year draws to a close.
Todd Philips’s direction is also very much up to scratch. Stunning cinematography and clear visual cues taken from the early films of Martin Scorsese allow for a beautifully decrepit realisation of a city on the brink of social collapse. Many twists and a strong use of ambiguity keep the audience in contemplation long after the credits roll.
Where the film starts to crumble is its sometimes juvenile attempts at social commentary. Although it takes place in the 1980s, the film is undoubtedly attempting to depict a society that hits close to our own in 2019. While the film does attempt to speak out about mental illness, and also about how our collective mistreatment and neglect of unwell individuals is what can create such disturbed individuals as Fleck, it does so in such overt ways that sometimes it feels like certain lines and thoughts in the film come straight from the mind of a disgruntled teenager. While the film will certainly start conversation, it’s unfortunate that such topics were dealt with in the way they were. Having characters almost literally spell out ‘Society is BAD’ and other such messages for audiences was disappointing to see, especially when there was plenty of opportunities to deal with such relevant topics in more nuanced and thematically mature ways.
Overall, this more grounded take on a Joker origin story, capped by a monstrously enthralling lead performance and some truly beautiful imagery, help this film to earn its status as one of the year’s most interesting and talked-about releases. While it’s not as perfect as some early reviews seemed to suggest, the film’s willingness to bring comic book-inspired cinema to new, much darker places allow it to succeed wholly, despite some shallow attempts at sparking a wider conversation.