Every young child has a favorite superhero. For some children, it was Spider-Man, for others it was Superman, and for some, it was simply a close family member or friend. Mine wasn’t that deep, for I have always been a huge fan of Batman. When I was 5 years old, I saw the release of “Batman Begins,” the original entry in Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy. Ever since, I have looked forward to the release of every theatrical Batman film. Throughout my twenty years, I have seen three separate portrayals of Batman’s most iconic villain, the Joker. However, the year is now 2019, and we finally have a story about how the man behind the make-up became who he is notoriously known for.
Before I dive into the critical assessment of “Joker” (don’t worry, I will remain spoiler-free), I would like to address the controversy surrounding the nature of this film. Throughout the past few weeks, the film has been the subject of ridicule by many online publicists for its portrayal of mental illness, and how the events within the film mirror the way in which many of the recent mass murders and terrorist attacks have been carried out. I do want to acknowledge that, after seeing this film, I understand this criticism to its fullest capacity. I would even go as far as to say that the film glorifies that narrative, but only through the eyes of its central character. This is part of the reason why the film has such a complex story to digest. The purpose of this film is to dive into the psychoanalysis of a man who has been tormented by society since the day he was born, and to learn why he became who he is.
Part of what makes this movie so intriguing is the fact that it is an in-depth character study of one of the most recognizable villains in comic book history. Throughout the 2-hour-runtime, we see the monstrous transformation of a man named Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). He is a failed comedian who suffers from mental illnesses caused by childhood trauma, and instigated by how he is perceived by other people who do not understand him.
In regards to the performances in this film, it is hard to shy away from the fact that Phoenix will certainly see a lot of coverage come awards season. His depiction of Arthur Fleck/Joker is one of the most transformative and emotional performances I have ever seen in any film. From his timid, and shy portrayal of Arthur Fleck, to the bombastic and grandiose portrayal of Joker, the audience cannot help but notice that Phoenix is playing two completely different characters within this film. Other performances to make note of in this film include Zazie Beetz’ portrayal of Sophie, one of Fleck’s neighbors that he grows an attraction to, as well as Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Murray Franklin, a talk show host who Fleck becomes obsessed with, ultimately playing a role in his downfall.
With the immaculate performances set aside, it’s also difficult to talk about this film without mentioning the menacing, yet triumphant score from Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, who has soloist credits in other films, including several Denis Villeneuve films (Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival). Along with the musical component, the audience is also presented with the backdrop of Gotham City, which is reminiscent of a 1980s New York or Chicago setting – very fitting for this grim production.
To summarize this review without giving any spoilers, it’s safe to say that, for me, everything in this film worked. As a long time fan of, not only of the character of Joker, but of cinema in general, everything in this film presented itself as I had imagined an R-rated take on the origin of Joker would. The Oscar-worthy performance from Phoenix, coupled with a thought-provoking and controversial narrative that this film wraps itself in, allows “Joker” to be one of the most memorable films in recent history. With that being said, it is a very tough and uncomfortable movie to sit through, for the evolution of this man from who he was to what he becomes is absolutely terrifying.