Movie Review: ‘Joker’

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“You are a product of your environment.” Todd Phillips’ “Joker” takes this statement and brings it to life. Through the terrifying portrayal of mental illness, Phillips’ film is a cinematic sledgehammer, designed to smash our most inner levels of comfort. By syncing us to the perspective of a broken man, we are forced to endure a nightmarish narrative that parallels the depths of despair. The end result is a film of volcanic proportions. 

Set in 1980s Gotham City, the film follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man dealing with mental instability. Once his isolated existence begins to intensify, Fleck’s mind enters a psychological field of madness. As Gotham becomes more and more of a societal hell, Arthur morphs into a formidable villain. In time, the Joker is born. 

Many of the best comic book movies feel like something else entirely. In 2008, Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” revolutionized comic book movies with its crime elements. Nolan’s film possessed the tactical and emotional power often seen in Michael Mann pictures, and in the end, it felt like a crime epic. In 2017, James Mangold’s “Logan” continued the status of Wolverine, ushering in a newly formed universe inspired by classical westerns, like “Shane” (1953) and “Unforgiven” (1992). Now, we have “Joker,” a film clearly inspired by Martin Scorsese’s early character studies, like “Taxi Driver” (1976), “Raging Bull” (1980), and “The King of Comedy” (1983). 

In classic fashion, Gotham is a character unto itself, and in all honesty, it has never felt more real. This rendition of Gotham feels eerily similar to New York City’s metropolitan status in the 1970s. Economic stagnation rules the social infrastructure, escalating the desperation of civilians. Violence dominates the streets, turning inhabitants into fearful beings. Trash bags fill up the streets, molding the city into a location of consistent filth. 

Credit must be given to Lawrence Sher, the cinematographer. Sher and Phillips have a history of working together, and here they capture the largeness of Gotham, a fictional setting brimming with richness and mythology. Very quickly, we receive a location that sets the foundation for humanistic suffering and savagery.

The camera shots showcase the location’s overwhelming geography, highlighting a communal battlefield of loneliness and savagery.

Joaquin Phoenix drives this cinematic train with a deeply unsettling performance that epitomizes fragility. With his skinny frame, cringeworthy contortions, and child-like essence, Phoenix creates a completely incompetent character, destined to be eaten by societal dogs. His interpersonal awkwardness imbues the film with many layers of sympathy, creating a character who is destined to break our hearts. As Arthur transforms, our appreciation for him dwindles, because the story wonderfully develops his inner darkness. Eventually, he becomes an intriguing character, not a likable one. 

At its core, this is a simplistic story filled with obvious setups. Much of what happens to Arthur is extremely predictable, but the script (written by Phillips and Scott Silver) does a wonderful job of building up the harsh, morally dirty environment. Through media releases and interpersonal rudeness, the film becomes a form of immense anxiety. We understand how ruthless this atmosphere is, and in turn, the sequences of abuse feel monumentally uncomfortable. As the location continually disrupts Arthur’s existence, we feel his scattered mentality. In a wise turn of events, Phillips throws us into an unreliable perspective blurring reality and fantasy. The final result is a cinematic experience made up of layers and theories. 

Throughout the narrative, the subject matter is taken very seriously. Phillips’  film is a cinematic tragedy, predominately focused on the ugliness of mental decline and social irresponsibility. The violence isn’t glorified. Instead, it’s presented in a gritty, hard-edged way. Every aspect is messy, hinting at the sickening nature of bloodshed. When you leave the theater, you will be shook up from the staging of cinematic storytelling.

It’s important to focus on the film’s utilization of music. Often times, music tells us what to feel. It expresses the thematic nature of specific storytelling. In this case, the music gives Arthur’s transformation an enhanced essence of terror. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s haunting score infiltrates our spaces of thought, making us feel disappointed, depressed, and uncomfortable. At another point, Phillips uses Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2” as a musical accompaniment. Here we are placed in the character’s euphoria, an uncomfortable aspect to say the least. Glitter’s work is a pump-up song in every sense of the word, and in this moment, we see that violence excites Arthur. It’s a truly disturbing scene, filled with twisted sensibilities that parallel real life psychology. 

In the end, “Joker” says more than most comic book movies. It takes a glance at our flaws, reflecting the darkness that lies within. Through brutal honesty, it highlights our country’s mental health problems, while also pointing out that we ignore these aspects. Also, the film focuses on the importance of social civility, telling us that we should be mindful of our actions and words. For better or worse, our existence affects people, and we need to be self-aware. If a person is having a bad day, let’s not make it worse. Let’s understand that everyone has a breaking point. 

Like most films, “Joker” isn’t perfect. If certain sections were trimmed, the film would have a greater sense of fluidity. Additionally, the film beats us over the head with an obvious revelation, providing us with minor instances of repetitiveness. The ending, while powerful and transformative, has a minor problem: It doesn’t know when to quit. Instead of ending on a perfect note, the film extends itself to the reaches of unnecessary plotting. 

Alll in all, I highly recommend “Joker.” In our era of comic book positivity, it’s important to know what you are in for. If you are open to seeing a serious take on comic book mythology, “Joker” is your movie. I can only hope that it paves the way for other risky projects. I think, as a society, we forget how versatile the comic book world truly is. 

My Grade:  B+

Dillon McCarty can be contacted at [email protected]

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