Laugh Away Your Problems
Uncomfortable, unnerving and utterly mesmerising, Joker is the perfect example of how to take a basic concept and execute it flawlessly. On the surface, the plot is paper thin and the script suffers from a drawn-out third act and a distinct lack of consequences for our lead character but Joaquin Phoenix’s performance single-handedly grabs the film by the scruff of the neck and injects a different flavour into this villain. With big themes around class and inequality, Joker is a film that exists far beyond its basic idea of a supervillain origin story and executes with such flair and tenacity that it solidifies itself as one of the best films of 2019.
Deep in the heart of Gotham City, mentally-troubled comedian Arthur Fleck lives a difficult live. Finding solace in the stand-up performances of comedian Murray Franklin, Arthur finds his life take a downward spiral to despair, pushing him to breaking point. This breaking point happens to be the moment Arthur Fleck’s personality disintegrates, replaced by the now-infamous Joker. There’s an uncomfortable and uneasy atmosphere clinging to large swathes of the film too which spills over to the narrative perfectly through Phoenix’s chilling and haunting performance.
Ultimately, it’s this performance that elevates an otherwise paper-thin plot line and script. Sometimes though, that’s all you need to really allow an actor to breathe life into a character. I’ve long been a fan of Joaquin Phoenix and in both Signs and Gladiator, he was easily the stand-out performer in those films. Here, he really shows a different side of his acting prowess, allowed togrow beyond the conventions of this script. Whether it be his involuntary laugh, haunting, faraway look or even the accentuated dialogue, Phoenix does an amazing job to build empathy for this mentally unstable individual while always remaining uneasy in his presence. It’s such a difficult balance to get right and props to him for managing to do this character justice.
You can clearly see Joker’s influence stems as far back as Taxi Driver too, right down to the inclusion of Robert De Niro. In a way, Joker feels like the modern-day equivalent of that film and is likely to be one heavily regarded as a cult classic from this year. While Hollywood and Disney continue to churn out cookie-cutter superhero flicks and uninspired adaptations and reboots, Joker is a surprisingly refreshing change of pace, instead focusing a lot more on a gritty, character-driven study of one man’s descent into chaos. Yes this is still a superhero adaptation on the surface but it’s uncomfortable and difficult to watch, doing well to depict Gotham City as a bleak, desolute place whilst grounded in reality away from the usual superhero conventions you’d expect.
It’s not perfect and at times the plot does undermine this character-driven journey. There’s a moment late on that rounds out Joker’s character arc perfectly following a dramatic twist, as the camera pans out and fades to black against the backdrop of Gotham City. This, to me, would have been the perfect ending but instead Joker continues for another 10 minutes or so, outstaying its welcome which is a bit of a shame. For all the positives with Phoenix’s character, he does have a tendency to over-act his lines, with his dancing and general flamboyance toward the end bordering a little too theatrical given the grittiness of the film beforehand.
Overall though Joker is a big surprise. It’s gritty, unnerving and once again shows off the acting prowess of Joaquin Phoenix in all its glory. If you can look past the basic plot line and the overlong ending, Joker is well worth watching. It’s a very well-acted study of one man pushed to breaking point, with a perfect blend of muted aesthetics and handheld cameras to do justice to one of the best villains ever created. Whether Phoenix is the best Joker is left up for debate but the uniqueness to his character is enough to make this one of the must-watch films of the year.
Verdict - 8/10