We have seen a number of different interpretations of Batman’s arch nemesis in films over the years. Well now we have a film focused on the Clown Prince of Crime, but it has more in common with classic Martin Scorsese films than it does with its comic book origins, with only the most passing references to the original DC comic books.
Joker follows a man named Arthur Fleck, a clown with aspirations of being a standup comedian, who suffers with mental health issues. After suffering being attacked, losing his job, and having his support for his mental health issues removed Arthur finds his life spiralling.
The man charged with bringing this heavy story to life is Joaquin Phoenix. And following on from last year’s You Were Never Really Here he once again shows that he is one of the most exceptional actors in this kind of dark and damaged role. He really goes into the depths during this film bringing Fleck’s traumas to the surface more and more as the film goes on, and continually bring this out through the physicality he injects into the role. This is truly a masterful performance from one of the greatest actors working today.
The story that writer/director Todd Phillips goes with in Joker is hardly the most original. It heavily draws from Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, something Phillips has been very open about. For many whose interest lies with comic books rather than these classic films then Joker will absolutely be a breath of fresh air, as we haven’t seen a traditional comic book film like it. But for many it is the technically aspects of Joker that stand out. Sadly Phillips’ direction is a little more hit and miss. There is just too often where he lacks any kind of subtlety, and he makes some choices that aren’t needed.
But he is supported by some incredibly talented people. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher has worked with Phillips ever since they made The Hangover in 2009, but this has been a hell of a year for him. He shot Godzilla: King of the Monsters which for all its faults was beautiful to look at. But that is nothing compared to what he achieves on Joker. This film is stunningly shot, and Sher’s cinematography deserves to be one of the big talking points coming out of the film.
Similarly the score that Hildur Guðnadóttir provides for the film is hauntingly beautiful. She worked with Jóhann Jóhannsson before he passed, and it is clear that she shares his considerable talent for film scores. She really helps capture Arthur’s descent into darkness. In particular a piece entitled ‘Bathroom Dance’ that perfectly helps set the mood in one of the film’s standout sequences.
And it is the elements like Phoenix’s performance, Sher’s cinematography, or Guðnadóttir’s score that make Joker a truly noteworthy film. The rest of the film isn’t bad, but it isn’t much special either. There is enough excellence in Joker that makes it well worth watching for those technical aspects alone, but it doesn’t reach the heights of a film like Logan or Taxi Driver. The one thing that I do hope comes out of Joker is that it can inspire conversation about the treatment of those with mental illness and mental health issues. It is obviously a major theme in the film, as we see Arthur cut off from his support networks early in the film, and this is such an important issue at the moment.