Watch this as soon as you can…
This film is the masterpiece most critics, who have seen it so far, have described. Wow. Joker really lives up to the hype. With strong writing, a forlorn score, precise cinematography and an outstanding performance from Joaquin Phoenix, this is film people will be talking about for years to come.
The writing of Todd Phillips and Scott Silver has not been getting much praise, but it deserves it. The gritty story, which lives up to its 15 age rating, depicts Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), an already damaged and broken person, as he suffers incessant bad luck and cruel beatings from a careless society around him. The transformation from Arthur to Joker takes its time, feeling real and organic as a result (unlike other descents into madness from a popular show earlier this year). There is some unforced social commentary as well, for the inadequate state provisions for dealing with mental health issues are suggested to a possible cause in Arthur’s decay into insanity. Some truly surprising twists are also thrown in along the way, particularly involving Sophie (Zazie Beetz). The reason the twist works is because her affair with Arthur feels like a spin on the Joker/Harley Quinn romance. You believe in it. Then, the narrative pulls the curtain and reveals all was not as it seemed. Joker’s screenplay does this so well: exploiting our knowledge of the source material to shock and surprise. Take the inclusion of Bruce Wayne/Batman and his father, Thomas Wayne. Throughout the film, we know this subplot can only end one way. Another example is when Arthur/Joker is invited on a talkshow hosted by Murray Franklin. Not only is this calling back to a famous scene from the comics, but it is also an interesting parallel of a similar scene from The King of Comedy. By paying homage to these sources of inspiration, the talkshow scene is filled with tension, as we know things are not going to end well. The narrative is told through some carefully controlled writing.
This film is more than just a screenplay; the cinematography from Lawrence Sher, under the direction of Todd Phillips, is that of a craftsman. So much of the story is told from remarkably well chosen shots. An early shot in the film depicts Arthur at a makeup table. He is on the left of the frame, slightly off from the centre, suggesting how his life and mental state have slightly skewed from the normal. He is forcing a smile on his face, but a single tear is falling down his cheek, dragging the makeup with it. This one shot tells you everything you need to know about Arthur. Further, there are many shots depicting Arthur/Joker on a set of stairs. These shots are always framed so Arthur looks trapped between the two barristers, just as he is trapped by his depression and the crushing forces of an indifferent society. (Gotham, too, is perfectly realised by Sher as a neglected, brutal, and, sadly, recognisable city.) It is also important to track what he is doing on these stairs: is he struggling on his way up? Or dancing like there is no one else in the world on his way down? It is a clever way of tracking his character’s descent into madness.
Of course, Joker would not be what it is without the Oscar worthy performance from Joaquin Phoenix. Backed up by a moving, dark and tragic score from Hildur Guðnadóttir, Phoenix really captures the idea that it can be hard to determine whether Joker’s life is a tragedy or comedy. His physicality as he dances like the world is his stage, the way he can look in fits of laughter and genuine, gut-retching pain at the same time, and the way he effortlessly sends a chill down the audience’s spine as he changes from manic laughter to cold silence, all work to make the film as memorable as it is. Phoenix also lost a lot of weight for the role, and this was a superb artistic decision. It conveys how downtrodden and beaten this character is, whilst making for some unsettling viewing as his skin slides across his bones during his dance performances to himself. Phoenix joins the pantheon of great Joker performances.
Even if Phoenix was the only good thing about this film, it would still be worth seeing. Fortunately for us, everything is else is superbly crafted and lives up to this career high performance. The writing is careful and precise. The cinematography is even more masterful. And, unlike a lot of superhero films from Marvel, there is a terrific and dark score too. This really is the five star movie we were promised, and a true high point for film in 2019.