Joker (2019)

An ultra-dark sociopathological study steeped in deep nihilistic psychology with wildly-violent social commentary, Joker is A Clockwork Orange x Taxi Driver x RFAD with a career performance by Phoenix on the origins of supervillains. 9.3/10.

Plot Synopsis: Forever alone in a crowd, failed comedian Arthur Fleck seeks connection as he walks the streets of Gotham City. He 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.

*Possible spoilers ahead*

Review

80+ Years: A Villain Like No Other

The Joker. 80+ years of chilling sociopathological laughs, psychological terror, theatrical chaos untempered by morality, & the ability to bring entire cities to their knees with no superpowers: “just a few bullets and drums of gas.” But where does such an icon of evil – the greatest comic book villain of All-Time – come from? What indescribable tragedies or societal/mental-breakdowns could mold a normal citizen into a demonic presence bent solely on leaving death and destruction in his path? The Dark Knight had plenty of fun with this concept, spinning the scariest thing about The Joker – the fact he could come from anywhere as a symbol of the volatile darkness & sin lurking just underneath the fragile surface of society – with multiple incongruent origin stories tailor-made to Ledger’s next victim’s biggest fear (R.I.P.). As did The Killing Joke with a lightly-expositioned origin-tease that still left more than enough gray area/ambiguity to not break this psychological-ace. When a Joker origin film was first announced, I’ll admit: I was vehemently against the concept out of agreement with Nolan’s analyses on the character & nature of evil. It would take a damn masterpiece, a film so dangerous police would have to guard the premiere, a game-changing descent into madness to make this work.. but – somehow – that’s what we got. An ultra-dark sociopathological study steeped in deep nihilistic psychology & chilling realism with wild violence and intricacy in social commentary, Joker is A Clockwork Orange x Taxi Driver x RFAD with a career performance by Joaquin Phoenix on supervillains’ origins: one of the greatest films of the millennium.

Portrait Of A Man Broken By Society

The stylized violence and portrait of a man broken by society. Phillips was the odd-ball in the mix; a wildcard director that – known best for his savage comedy days of The (degeneracy-riddled) Hangover – was farthest on the list of Scorsese-like prospects to produce such a deep, dark-rooted character piece that’s anything but funny. Fascinatingly, he shatters these preconceptions by putting on the boxing gloves & tackling the un-tackle-able; giving us one of the most stylized portrayals of violence and darkest films *EVER* realized to screen – reminiscent of (and perhaps even more tangible & gripping by way of its comic book facade) All-Time Classics like Taxi Driver and A Clockwork Orange. Phillips’ control over the slow, hypnotic descent into madness of an innocent, even-puffballish man you could never possibly imagine could become the Joker is mired with surgical directorial skill and developmental detail that feels.. beyond his capabilities in all honesty (almost as if Scorsese or someone was pulling strings behind-the-scenes or he tapped into something greater than himself; I’m not complaining either way). The thunderous presence in that director’s chair – whomever responsible – slings soul-wrenchingly dark tragedies at Fleck with ease like sadistic gods bent on his demise for our entertainment – like the court’s jesters of-eras past the character is modeled after. The violence and psyche-breaking macabre is absolutely brutal and some of the darkest and most gasp-inducing I’ve *ever* witnessed in my filmic tenure; we see people stabbed in the eye then thrown against the wall until their blood splatters Phoenix’s face completing his Joker make-up, stroke-victim elderly mother suffocated by her own family in hospital beds, talk show hosts executed at point-blank range with revolvers on TV, child abuse of a young Arthur tied to a freaking radiator & beaten, etc.

A Ghastly Backstory Steeped In Sociopathological Terror

This all swirls into a ghastly, realism-immersed backstory of where a guy like The Joker could come from. Even befitted with some fan service amongst all the viscerally-heavy sociopathy, the screenwriters sprinkle Easter Eggs any DC or Bat-fan will adore throughout – like a fantastic recreation of the Batman comics’ origin alley-murder scene, an exact recreation of the finger gun from Taxi Driver, royal blue police car-reversed shot paying homage to The Dark Knight, and final Shyamalan-ic plot twist throwing into question our very construct of the reality of what we just witnessed at the end. This is only bolstered in stylistic flair by phenomenal costume design (including Phoenix’s Joker ensemble the 2nd best live-action appearance ever in CLC’s vote), idiosyncratic brightly-colored ’90’s set pieces also feeling classically-noir-reminiscent and Gotham City-like, a booming thunderous orchestral cello-laden score by relatively-unknown talent Guōnadóttir as dark-toned as the events unfurled & theatricality-bursting to match the comic-book-villain’s atmospherics, and strong cinematography by Lawrence Sher visually capturing this descent into the subconscious of what makes violence fester.

Phoenix’s Performance: The Oscars 2019

One of the top actors in the world already boasting a 3x-Oscar nominated filmography from the visceral You Were Never Really Here to opposite-spectrum indies Her and The Master, Joaquin Phoenix predictively rises to the ultimate supervillain-role in *spectacular* fashion. Nicholson said the role “does something to you;” Leto didn’t break character the entire time filming, even sending castmates dead carcasses & prophylactics to question his normalcy; Ledger tragically lost his mind by it in a hotel drug/madness-fueled overdose that stopped his heart before he even got to taste the celebration the followed the release of one of history’s greatest cinematic performances: THAT’s how powerful this role and villain is – even to top world actors. Phoenix tackles one of the most difficult and expectation-heavy roles in cinema with masterful skill and command for one of the best performances of his career – so visceral down to even minuscule details like physicality, stark contrast between personas to mirror his character development from innocent pushover/punching-bag sauntering up the steps to another night of pain and loneliness all the way to a sadistic killer dancing down those same steps with pep in his step by film’s end.

The Laugh – A Neurological Condition: Pseudobulbar Affect (PBA)

Joaquin’s laugh choice is so advanced, it alone it demands exposition – reportedly watching over 250+ hours of an actual neurological condition called pseudobulbar affect (PBA), wherein patients laugh uncontrollably while physically unable to express other emotions for a twinge of sorrow in their laughter that finds immaculate fit in Phoenix’s tragic-comedian take on the character. I never thought I’d say these words: but someone gave Ledger a damn run for his money – an insurmountable summit climbed that alone cements it as the Best Actor heavyweight for 2019’s Academy Awards. The rest of the performances by its storied cast are phenomenal too, including a top-pedigree filmic feature by Robert De Niro as heartless talk show host milking victims’ pain for cash & (capitalism-commentative) fame, Zazie Beetz’ (not so) love interest – wildest plot twist of the film, Frances Conroy’s Wayne-obsessed mother so cold she sneers her own son’s dreams saying for example “don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?”, and Cullens’ downright-evil portrayal of a cold, calculating, elitist, nauseatingly-pretentious Thomas Wayne.

The Intellectually-Complex Themes & Chilling Sociological Civilization Analysis

The film tackles mental illness, consumerism, “woke”/cancel culture, the social media age, human nature, fascism, noir-elements, communism, socialism, capitalism, syndicalism, and multiple philosophical ideologies from nihilism to cynicism.. all in two hours for one of the most impressive screenplays of the decade. As its tagline alludes, we are all taught/conditioned from the time we are young – silly-putty in society’s hands – to put on a happy face and hide our pain/failures while extenuating our accomplishments (real or fake), desperately seeking approval or 5 minutes of fame from strangers to convince us our lives have meaning. That invisibility feeling mirrored by the real effects of bullying and rejection pain is a dangerous chemical mix that has the potential to breed violence/criminality of Joker-like proportions, as the film correctly brings to light picking up right where Taxi Driver left off in harsh sociological analysis. The script is so dastardly setting up the strings for Fleck’s demise that it presents us some of the harshest events a human being could *ever* endure – yet so realistic and plausible-feeling, you feel it could’ve happened to someone yesterday as a chilling wake-up call to look at our society’s construction: people of power and influence can abandon, cover up, and lock away their mistakes in asylums, shun kin not only out of a dime of their billions for medical or welfare reasons but even a mere hug after decades apart, misuse huge platforms to invite losers on just to humiliate them to millions for clicks and shareholder profits, & set friends up to take the fall for their wrongdoings so they can keep their dirty hands clean to the outside world – just as scary in society-approved plausibility as anything supervillains can do.

The Mental Illness Cogitation

The rumination on mental illness is exceptional – and IMPORTANT. Playing up the life-draining, even suicidal thoughts mental illnesses and depression can induce in real life with haunting quotes like “I’ve never been happy for even one minute of my entire life” and “you ask weekly if i’ve had any bad thoughts – *all I have* are bad thoughts”, we’re made to truly feel the magnitude of pain many such-affected feel on a daily basis – even for two hours as a vitally-uncomfortable walk in their shoes that anyone who’s faced darkness in their life can find solace and emotional relation in. The film also sneaks in a gloriously-condescending diatribe against the bludgeoned treatment of these disorders by society – another instance of the barbarous cruelty our system can display to those affected rivaling any supervillain in casualties/carnage. Forcing victims to repress & stuff down serious medical conditions with terminal effects/stakes by dismissive generalizations like “fake,” “soft,” “something to suck up”; “get over it”, the film shines an unflattering light on the toxicity of the societal treatment of mental illness from the victims’ perspective. Joker analyzes the current predicament of 21st-century society in the Social Media Age – the isolationism, FOMO, viral-culture, fake-news, ease of harassment/embarassment, and their combined deteriorative effects on the mental health of society as a whole – and frames it as a dark psychological nightmare anyone with a smartphone can relate and tap into. Brilliant.

Flaws

Flaws in Joker are singularly limited to its opening – and controversy I have to address being a critical problem in film journalism today. Irising-in to the dressing room of Phoenix’s Arthur listening to crime reports while doing his make-up somehow leading to him enacting the cry/forced-smile from the posters is a bit premature filmically. We don’t even know what’s happened to make him so broken yet, only agitated by a rough transition into Clockwork Orange-like ‘ultra-violence’ instead of a little more stage-setting the film could’ve used. The film takes a few minutes to stabilize and hit its stride, but once it does – it is absolutely glorious for a masterclass in psychological cinema eons ahead of anything else at theaters today. The controversy surrounding this film is preposterous and an embarrassment to the field of film review. The film does nothing bad or disrespectful to any group. Criminals don’t wait for movies to hypnotize and tell them to do bad things; they do them regardless as they have since the beginning of time (Update 11/15/19: the film didn’t incite a single act of violence on its billion-dollar theatrical run despite critics swearing it would.. imagine that).

The Controversy

Finally, I must call out the double-standards between intellectual cinema today and eras past – as well as Marvel and DC films. I didn’t see critics have problems with dark tonal mixes and violence when similar-character studies like Taxi Driver and A Clockwork Orange came out – how can we as critics claim to be sorting out the best of cinema for the average consumer.. when nitpicking artistic psychological cinema like Joker while the MCU movies (decent popcorn entertainment as they are, but comparatively-mindless) get constant passes. We need to take a good, long look in the mirror and the world of film review as painstakingly as the film holds up a magnifying glass to society and mental illness, so that we’re doing our job as film journalists and properly praising/judging masterpieces like this and they get their full due in the spotlight. This inequality of fair film criticism and media coverage in modern moviemaking is the reason I got into film review to begin with – to do my part in achieving justice for real cinema.

Conclusion

One Of The Greatest Films Of The Decade

Overall, Joker is a masterpiece of intellectually-complex civilization analysis that transcends the comic book genre for the biggest quantum leap since The Dark Knight (it’s only inches behind film-wise). The most stylized depiction of violence in decades and an intellectualized psychological character drama boasting a legendary performance and the most important depiction of mental illness to ever grace mass media, DC has found another magnum opus by again putting the ballsiest bet on the table going where their competition refuses to go – art with something to say instead of safe, giggly, formula blockbusters with no intentions but to line shareholder pockets. An ultra-dark sociopathological study steeped in deep nihilistic psychology & chillingly-possible realism with wild violence & intricacy in complex social commentary, Joker is A Clockwork Orange x Taxi Driver x RFAD with a career performance by Joaquin Phoenix on supervillains’ origins for one of the greatest films of the decade.

Official CLC Score: 9.3/10