There’s something otherworldly to “Joker.” Its dingy color palette and 1.78:1 aspect ratio conflict everything that past comic book movies have done. It’s small, cramped, claustrophobic, and mean. This is a dangerous and upsetting film, not for the faint of heart.
Joaquin Phoenix (“Her,” “You Were Never Really Here”) is positively electric as Arthur Fleck. His performance is impeccable and will likely grab a lot of awards talk come next year’s Oscars, but there’s something about his performance. It’s detached and raw, and it feels real in a scary way. At times it doesn’t feel like an actor playing a role; instead, in the film’s most jarring moments, it just feels like watching a person live.
This is a testament to Phoenix’s talent, but also to the work that he, Writer/Director Todd Phillips (“War Dogs,” “The Hangover”), and Co-Writer Scott Silver (“8 Mile,” “The Fighter”) have taken to make sure the film never glorifies the actions and inspirations for them. Rather, they take ample time in showing the puzzle pieces that build to eventually create this shattered man.
If Arthur felt happy about an action, the film shows that, and succeeds in not painting the action either way, leaving it up to the audience to decide. There’s an explicit difference between showing the events and glorifying them, and Phillips seems to understand this completely.
Pacing also helps in telling his tale in just the right way, and the film ends up beginning with a very slow burn. While initially moving slowly and deliberately, the latter half quickens things up quite a bit as more and more things start to spark and explode at the same time. An excellent musical score from Hildur Guðnadóttir (“A Hijacking,” “Chernobyl”) meshes with cinematography from Lawrence Sher (“Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” “The Hangover”) that is at times understated and grandiose. Both are excellent.
Also excellent is Robert De Niro (“Casino,” “Goodfellas”), delivering an excellent performance and almost becoming an audience surrogate in the latter half of the film. He doesn’t get as much screen time as Phoenix, but the work he does with it is just as good.
While Phoenix steals the show, the supporting cast feels utilized mostly well. Brian Tyree Henry (“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” “If Beale Street Could Talk”) serves as more of a cameo than was initially suggested, and Brett Cullen (“Person of Interest,” “42”) as Thomas Wayne does a wonderful job at balancing his character to avoid teetering into one moral side. Frances Conroy (“American Horror Story: Murder House,” “Six Feet Under”) as Arthur’s mother is also wonderfully understated.
None are used a lot or particularly excellently, but they all serve their roles in worthwhile ways. If there is a scene stealer, it would be Leigh Gill (“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” “Game of Thrones”) as Gary, a charming British friend of Arthur’s, as he’s just a genuinely nice person who feels like the bright spot and gets treated horribly for it.
However, even for the segmented, puzzle piece nature of the narrative, one character isn't really dealt with that much. Zazie Beetz’s (“Deadpool 2,” “Atlanta”) role is introduced, has a few moments, and then is disappointingly cast aside. The fate of this character is even left ambiguous, which is disappointing given how concretely the rest of the major impacts on Arthur’s life and the results of them are shown.
It is clear though that this is not meant to be a point by point plotted film. Rather this is a character study, a powder keg of a film. Not everything is spelled out and explained, just the pieces that matter in the tale of this man and how he got to this state. Some elements that could be seen as lazy or surface level regarding Arthur's motivations seem almost purposely so.
His is a character whose actions are at the same time meant to be unthinkable and also unfounded. So, the surface level actions that push him to that point are justified in being two-dimensional in order to allow his horrific transformation to remain horrific.
It isn’t as well rounded as other comic book films or character pieces, but it’s clear that this is going for one specific thing, and the goal is to perfect that one thing so expertly that all the other elements, while still very good, can be forgiven for not being as excellent, as they aren’t the focus.
This is also a film that is just, point blank, difficult to think about. Again, there’s a difference between glorifying these actions and simply showing them, and “Joker” knows this. It succeeds in not glorifying, but that doesn’t mean it is any less upsetting. Controversy will follow this film like a white-hot magnet, and whether or not that is justified will be discussed by critics for months to come.
There is something to respect here, as well. Not since “The Dark Knight,” and maybe not even then, has such a particular vision of what was once seen as comic book pulp characters been realized. It achieves what it sets out to do, and it cuts deeply because of that. There is a reason DC’s name is actually nowhere on the film itself, apart from the credits mentioning “Based on Characters from DC.”
“Joker” is distinctly uncomfortable, and dangerous. This is a film filled with white hot rage yet keeps it just distant enough to avoid painting this protagonist as a hero. It is a cautionary tale, not a glorifying one. Those aspects, and the film as whole, will likely be discussed for months to come, for good reason. Its cinematography, music, production designs, everything is impeccable, led by a jaw shatteringly good lead performance. “Joker” is a film that lingers on the mind. One that you might desperately want to forget yet is impossible to. Be warned though, when it’s over, you’ll need a good, cheap laugh. 4.5/5