Writers: Todd Phillips and Scott Silver
Director: Todd Phillips
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Francis Conroy, and Brett Cullen.
Review by Tyler Harris
Joker. What can I say about this film that hasn’t already been said a thousand times? It’s a visual and technical masterpiece, and Joaquin Phoenix stars as the most haunting version of this character I think we’ve ever seen. Then again, we have never seen Joker presented in quite this way before. Regardless of whether you enjoyed the film or not, you can’t deny that it’s a huge breath of fresh air in a stream of endless samey-samey comic book movies (with some obvious exceptions). But I think it’s more than that. I believe that people will be talking about this film for a very long time, and I think its effect on the landscape of cinema will be felt for years to come.
Who Did it Better?
A lot of the discourse surrounding this film is either centred on the violence, the political agenda, or the comparison between this version of the Joker with Heath Ledger’s. I’ll get into violence in a moment, and I won’t touch the political agenda (for seemingly obvious reasons), but I want to dismiss this Phoenix vs. Ledger debate in one statement:
You are allowed to have a personal favourite, but that doesn’t give you the right to discredit what either of these incredible actors have done in their two extremely different portrayals of a character with the same name.
The Phoenix Soars High
It’s time for me to say it: give Joaquin Phoenix an award… or all the awards! There are some actors who play one role that defines their career, and I feel as though this could be that role for Phoenix. He pulled a Bryan Cranston on me – I thought he was a good actor before his big role (Heisenberg in Breaking Bad, if that wasn’t clear), but after seeing him in this role, it will be hard for me to not only see him as anything else, and don’t see anyone else pulling off this role again. He is excellent. I don’t think there’s a single frame of this film he isn’t in, and it is impossible to look away for even a second when he is. Phoenix elevates the script to levels I could never have imagined, and I urge anyone who might even be lukewarm on the guy to see him in this movie – you will not be disappointed*
*unless you go in with a closed mind.
Influences and Homages
As a huge film buff, it was hard not for me to be constantly comparing the visual style, aesthetic, and themes to the works of Martin Scorsese – more specifically, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, both of which feature Robert De Niro. All of these homages show Phillips’ deep love and appreciation for the works that influenced him, and what he creates here is something truly remarkable. I’m not saying he’s done something wholly original – we have seen similar films before – but I think the reason it works so well here is purely because of the fact it’s the Joker. In an interview, Phillips even addressed this:
I literally described to Joaquin at one point in those three months as like, ‘Look at this as a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film’.
While Joker does take a lot of influence from Scorsese’s works, it also draws on numerous comics (as one would expect), specifically “The Killing Joke” and “The Dark Knight Returns.” There are some incredible homages to those works in this film, and without giving too much away, those final 15-20 minutes became a breath-holding competition in the cinema when I went on opening day. I described this film to a friend as a cherry-picking of the best Joker concepts from the past 80 years, all juiced together into one definitive origin, and as bad as it could have been, it just works beautifully.
As I mentioned – and, irrespective of whether you’ve actually seen the film, you’ve probably noticed – there is a lot of backlash towards Phillips and Warner Bros. about this film glorifying or condoning violence. Let me first just say: I disagree. I went into this movie thinking “oh my goodness this must be the most violent film ever” (as I’m in Australia, this got an MA rating, which is pretty commonplace for most films with coarse language and some violence) – but I left thinking “is that really what all the fuss was about?” If you’ve seen Game of Thrones, you’ve seen worse violence. If you’ve seen Deadpool, you’ve seen more gore… and if you’ve seen John Wick, you’ve seen a film that actively condones violence and revenge. Joker is none of those, and not anywhere near the most violent film I’ve ever seen; I don’t even think it cracks my Top 50 in that regard. I’m not certain where this fear-mongering from the press came from, but as someone who lives in Australia, it could simply be a cultural barrier surrounding gun violence that I just don’t understand. Either way, if you haven’t seen the film yet but are worried about the violence, my advice is to see it anyway and make a judgement for yourself – it is not as bad as people have made it out to be.
It would be criminal of me (if you’ll pardon the pun) to review this film and not mention the soundtrack. This film is scored by Hildur Guðnadóttir, an Icelandic composer who has just recently won an Emmy for her work on Chernobyl and also took home the Premio Soundtrack Stars Award for Joker at the Venice Film Festival. Her work in this movie works hand-in-hand with the script by Phillips and Silver, the performance from Phoenix, the cinematography from Lawrence Sher – everything is tied together by this soundtrack which grows and evolves (or perhaps, devolves) with our leading man until literally all you can hear in the cinema is this swelling orchestral masterpiece. I have had this soundtrack on repeat since opening day, and one of the biggest reasons I want to see this movie over and over again in cinemas is purely so I can get the sound quality required to appreciate this soundtrack in all its glory.
Even as I’m writing this review, I am being cautious about what I say surrounding Joker. I can’t remember any films in recent times which were as divisive as this one, and it makes comment or criticism… difficult. On one hand, I want to tell everyone to see this film, as I think it shows mental illness and violence in a terrifying and realistic way (which is what makes it so terrifying), but on the other hand I know this isn’t a film for everyone. There’s no Batman, there is no big CGI sky beam or final army to fight, there is no redemption arc for the protagonist – this is a gritty, crime-driven, psychological character study about a mentally ill man who realises that his life is one big joke and decides to do something about it. I don’t want to discredit anyone’s opinions – in fact, I’ve had some wonderfully open conversations with friends about this film’s depiction of violence and mental health – but in this wide-reaching forum, I must remain cautious.
Regardless, what I think is best – and I know this is probably rich coming from someone who is writing a review – ignore the reviews you’ve seen and make an assessment for yourself. This is truly a masterpiece of cinema, and I think it will become one of the most important films of the century. I know how overblown that sounds, but even if you think the film itself isn’t that good, the ripple effect this will have on the industry makes this worthy of your time and attention. See this film and let us know what you thought! Opening a dialogue lets us enjoy this film for longer than the 122 minutes it took us to watch it, and its in these discussions that its legacy will be cemented.
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