Forever alone in a crowd, failed comedian Arthur Fleck seeks connection as he walks the streets of Gotham City. Arthur wears two masks -- the one he paints for his day job as a clown, and the guise he projects in a futile attempt to feel like he's part of the world around him. Isolated, bullied and disregarded by society, Fleck begins a slow descent into madness as he transforms into the criminal mastermind known as the Joker.
This has got to be one of the most anticipated movies of the year. DC has had a mixed bag of films since the end of the Dark Knight trilogy which unfortunately had very few must-see films. The quality has been trending upwards as they moved away from cinematic universes and focused on standalone stories, which is why this new alt-universe Joker origin story holds so much intrigue; putting a new spin on one of the most well-known villains of all time.
Joker is going to leave its audience split. There is an air of the fantastical, and the glorification of the character that we have all come to know and love (understand may be a more accurate term), but the plot is composed of nothing more than creating a visceral visual display of a man's descent into madness. It is not the type of content that is made to spark that sense of satisfaction. It is there to unsettle you, to open your eyes to certain economical and political parallels between the world of today and this fictional 1980s Gotham.
Right from the start, there is a deliberate inconsistency in the narrative that works really well with this style of character study. There is a line between reality and imagination, but ambiguity is key and beyond a few key plot points, it is left up to each and every individual member of the audience as to where that line is. This lack of credibility in the narrative is accentuated with a generous sprinkling of DC Easter Eggs and homages that hint further at the parallels between worlds. While this is an origin story of a supervillain, the tone is far departed from what the superhero genre of film has brought about to date. There is almost no action in the film at all, with director Todd Phillips taking a more dramatic route, lulling the audience into a false sense of security before dropping the next sobering moment.
Sobering is actually, a great way to describe our primary characters story. It is said that the best way to judge a civilisation is to look at how it looks after its disadvantaged. Arthur Fleck is that disadvantaged person; the quintessentially down-on-his-luck comedian that can't get a break, no matter how innocent his intentions. Unsettling, and disturbing, thematically speaking, wealth inequality is a huge part of this film, leading to such a vast disconnect between the lower class and the elite that creates a powder keg, simply waiting for the right spark to set it off. Such a grounded interpretation of the character that it is no wonder people are concerned about people empathising with the primary character, and recreating it. The environment resonates so strongly because of the parallel with today's real-life divided world. However, while Joker may come across as the patron saint of Incels, it's the more generalised reminder that the people hold the power that really strikes true.
Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely outstanding. He put everything into this film, from both a mental and physical standpoint, and truly embodies the chaotic mental state of our beloved antagonist. He is the glue that holds this film together, as ultimately, the supporting cast have minimal roles to play. There is a side plot that involves the Wayne's, but it adds very little to the story and could have been cut out completely. Zazie Beets and Frances Conroy do put on some really convincing performances, despite their limited roles.
The score by Hildur Guðnadóttir (who just won an Emmy for her score on Chernobyl) creates an equally haunting aura around our primary character. Every time the emotions start to swell, the strings swell alongside it to an overbearing level that mirrors the psychological overload. Visually, Gotham is gorgeous. Well, maybe not gorgeous, but it has a strong sense of character. Saturated colours (a lot of green and brown hues that give a very mould and dirt-ridden feel) and effective use of shadow create a world that is lived in. Unlike the Dark Knight trilogy, we actually get to see the citizens of Gotham and how they interact with the social, economic, and political climate. The cinematography is absolutely stunning from Lawrence Sher. The tracking shots are seamless, with some very striking angles and perspectives. The entire end-product is a pleasant surprise considering this is the same director that brought us Road Trip and The Hangover trilogy, but everything is beautifully nuanced.
There is little else that I can really say, without jumping into spoiler territory. Joker is a highly stylised arthouse drama that just happens to involve a DC villain as the primary character. The trailers do have a higher energy level than the actual film does, which needs to be kept in mind; this is not an action or superhero film, this is a slow burn of a psychological drama.
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