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‘Joker’ is a terrifying and layered new spin on comic book movies

 By Jonathan Shuping

October 4, 2019

Move over, Pennywise. Joker may be the scariest movie of the year.

This is the origin story of an ultimate villain; one that we never got with Heath Ledger’s Joker (though it works pretty well for that character, too). No, he doesn’t fall into a vat of green acid or have reconstructive surgery that results in a perma-grin. This is a character study, a psychological deep dive into the essential nature of the man who would become the Clown Prince of Crime. If you thought the anarchy of Dark Knight Rises was unsettling, wait till you get a load of this guy.

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck / Joker. Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures

We open on the old-school ‘70s Warner Bros. logo, so right away the period is established without any mention or graphic cue. As with any satire, there are plenty of interesting parallels to current times. Times are tough. They’re also very familiar. Arthur Fleck (aka Joker) wants so badly to be loved, but to achieve that he uses hate. There are also many reflections on health care and the treatment and expectations of those with mental illness. All of these things will no doubt cause a stir amongst the critical masses, but perhaps that’s the intent.

One by one, we begin to tick the boxes of a murderous profile, but each one is its own revelation and this is a spoiler-free zone so we won’t give those away. Fleck’s anger is mounting. There’s a festering resentment of the city and government that has turned its back on its lower class, and this spark threatens to ignite a ‘kill the rich’ movement in Gotham. Ironically like the city he so despises, we watch Joker spiral into madness and chaos. While his edict is “to bring laughter and joy into this cold dark world,” Joker’s contribution to Gotham City is decidedly contrasting. 

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck / Joker. Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures

Director Todd Phillips’ (The Hangover) transition to drama is heavily influenced by some of the great auteurs of the ‘70s. Joker has Sidney Lumet’s ominous sense of impending tragedy, the fluid intensity of Kubrick, and the unhinging violence of Scorsese. Fleck dresses in vivid primary colors but his surroundings are bleak and grim. As in the trailers, the soundtrack employs bright ‘40s-era croonings by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole and while it is sarcastically twisted it is not nearly as effective as the hauntingly apocalyptic cello-heavy score by Icelandic composer Hildur Guonadottir (Arrival, Sicario).

In the end, this is the Joaquin Phoenix Show. His performance is unnerving, captivating, and creepy as hell. Phoenix’s appearance is reminiscent of Christian Bale in The Machinist, with protruding bones and sunken features that make him look more reptilian than human. Have you ever had the experience of encountering someone hysterical and for a beat, you’re not totally sure whether they are laughing or crying? That’s what Joaquin’s Joker’s laugh is like, and that’s the feeling the audience lives with during the entire movie. 

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck / Joker. Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures

He laughs like he’s the only one in on the joke, which, as one can imagine, is infuriating to some. Whether this is because of a neurological condition is unclear. There are plenty of blurred lines in the film, mysteries that are left ambiguously unsolved, which makes the unknown even more chilling. When Joker commits his first unpremeditated crime he realizes he feels neither power nor remorse. He simply doesn’t care. He’s a nihilist who puts on a happy face. But this sad clown isn’t crying on the inside. He’s raging.

In fact, somewhat surprisingly, there’s little to no comic relief at all. He definitely doesn’t blow a party horn and exclaim, “This town needs an enema!” The darkness looms throughout, and while there are a few Batman-adjacent elements to satisfy DC fans, it feels like a concerted effort to be a standalone film. 

Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin and Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck / Joker. Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures

One part Taxi Driver, one part Network, and one part Clockwork Orange, Joker is terrifying, layered, and a welcome new spin on comic book movies. This one will stick with you for a while.

Star Rating:  4 out of 5

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