by Allen Underwood ’21
It’s not often that I leave the theater saying, “I’ve never seen anything like that!”
Todd Phillips’ 2019 psychodrama Joker is a film unlike any other, a truly unique experience you simply need to see for yourself. Everything from its plot, casting, metaphors, cinematography, and pacing are top-notch, blending together seamlessly to create one of the best films, if not the best film, of the year.
(Please Note: This review contains spoilers.)
Joker’s plot is relatively straightforward. The protagonist is Arthur Fleck, a mentally unstable party clown and part-time stand-up comedian who snaps, transforming into the iconic prince of crime we all know and love. One could ostensibly understand the majority of the film from the short blurb provided in a summary on Google; however, in Joker, the intrigue comes from wondering when and why things happen, as opposed to what actually takes place.
The framing is also worthy of note, as the movie employs an unreliable narrator to keep the audience on its toes when considering what is real and what is not. This subjective approach to truth is also an integral part of Joker’s thematic framework; it is manifested in Gotham’s approach to moral responsibility and the character of Arthur himself, which enhances the film’s theme of duality.
What isn’t subjective, however, is the idea that Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Fleck is flawless. Phoenix gives it his all, employing a variety of emotions convincingly. Whether he is a giddy manchild envisioning himself on his favorite late-night television show or an unhinged maniac with a wanton disregard for human life, Arthur Fleck feels real enough to provoke sympathy, but embellished enough to warrant his hyperemotional performance.
The ensemble cast is also praiseworthy. Robert DeNiro, in particular, delivers a standout performance as Gotham talk show host Murray Franklin, a deplorable archetype of society’s cruelty whom Arthur idolizes. Nobody even comes close, however, to rivaling Joaquin Phoenix’s role as Fleck in what is certainly one of the year’s greatest cinematic performances.
Phoenix’s Joker is like an oil painting of Pagliacci on black velvet. Unsettling, and almost surreally entrancing, it forces the viewer to contemplate whether or not the piece is deserving of pity or unequivocal hatred. The character is well-developed, to boot. Fleck’s physicality, tone, word choice, and visual disposition all ebb and flow with the events of the film. This growth helps accentuate a primary message of the film – the duality of man and his society. The Joker and Arthur seem to represent two sides of the same coin, with the former being the repressed existential shadow hidden from the light of society. When Arthur accepts this side of himself, he instantly becomes more confident, as evidenced through his dancing on the stairs. While Fleck’s response to this psychoanalytical fork in the road is most certainly poor (and treated accordingly in the film), the audience is left to decide whether or not expressing our repressed persona is right or wrong.
The same applies for the protestors of Gotham seeking equitable treatment; the civilians employ violent tactics that eventually devolve into full-blown riots, seemingly following the lead of the Joker. Fleck perhaps best sums up this mindset, referring to the afflicted lower class of Gotham as potential “werewolves.” In folklore, the werewolf is an inherent feature of a person, but it is hidden and only appears in specific situations. Similarly, Joker’s conceptualization of the Jungian shadow implies that all people have an inherent longing for chaos that is merely looking for an opportunity to merge one’s regular persona.
Is embracing the collective shadow of society justified if that is what the majority of society wants? If we all have an inherent chaotic drive, is its purpose to display a subdued sentiment when it is essential to our humanity? Joker dips its toes into deep ethical dilemmas and provides however much substance you would like to justify them. Again, the film is what you want it to be and what you make of it. Joker can be a straightforward drama or a philosophical musing on humanity.
Moreover, the cinematography matches the somber tone of the film – slow and deliberate. It is hauntingly beautiful at times, yet fast-paced when it needs to be. In particular, the fight on a subway train is exceptional for its editing and shot composition, while the riot scene deftly embodies the spirit of chaos that is integral to the film.
The set design of a late-1970s Gotham is superbly executed, and the chilling score features eerie synths and strings that give auditory credence to the unpredictability of the main character. Also worthy of note is the film’s grading, which combines a washed-out look with a colorful palette. This contrast between environment and person goes a long way in illustrating how society is another main character of the film.
Lastly, the pacing of the film impressive, too. Joker is very much a slow burn, with the entire film being comprehensive in its two-hour runtime. Phillips succeeds in this regard by progressively making the film crazier and crazier, which is a surefire way to keep the audience invested. This craziness is perhaps best exemplified by one of the most explosive and jaw-dropping final acts of a movie released in the past decade – Arthur’s complete transformation into the Joker. It’s a payoff that feels earned due to the film’s smart pacing and editing.
Joker was an extraordinary film, and its ambiguous meaning and ending make for a film that is personal to each viewer. I could not recommend seeing it enough.