You could be forgiven for assuming that a villain origin story is going to amount to little more than a desperate attempt to squeeze cash out of an already saturated market. Yet such a description is not apt for Todd Phillips’ Joker. The film is not without its flaws, but it is still a terrifying, mesmerising spectacle which should not be missed. It is a far cry from DC’s recent flock of generic and mediocre comic book films.
Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck is as glorious as it is disturbing. Doing justice to such an iconic role is no easy task. Unforgettable performances from Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson in previous films ensure that the blood-stained clown shoes which need to be filled are truly enormous – a feat which is resoundingly accomplished. Whilst Phoenix delivers his lines to perfection, it is the physical element he brings to the notorious villain that ensure he is truly outstanding.
His sudden outbursts of shrieking laughter, the way he darts and glides across the screen in elegant dance routines and his gripping facial expressions all allow him to convey more through use of his body than others could in a thousand words. Crucially, he manages to pull off the surreal and insane without blundering into cringe-worthy and irritating moments. He makes the role his own, opting to go for a darker interpretation that actually works.
But it is not as if Phoenix is forced to carry the film. The inclusion of Robert De Niro as a comedic talk show host is similarly brilliant, proving to be more than a cheap reference to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. The veteran actor fulfils the role so well it as if he could stand in the place of Steven Colbert of the Late Show, and the moments that centre around De Niro’s fictional show are fascinating.
Perhaps most impressive of all is the cinematography and music, by Lawrence Sher and Hildur Guðnadóttir respectively. The imagery is memorable, from gloomy subways to chaotic riots.
The score is sensational. Thunderous cellos fill you with dread as the antagonist inevitably tumbles into madness. These two elements combine in ways that are at times exceptional, particularly as Phoenix’s presence on stage seizes the audience and demands undivided attention. Violence is, unsurprisingly, frequent and
Yet Phillips does well to prevent the film from becoming a crass, gore-stuffed slasher with little substance. Instead, depictions of the Joker’s horrific actions are handled in a way that evokes tension, shock and awe.
All of this does not mean the film is devoid of flaws. Whilst the antagonists’ character arc is compelling, other aspects of the plot are less assured. Some, certainly, may doubt that Arthur Fleck’s actions would really inspire the people of Gotham to side with him. Whilst the power of demagogues has been proven in recent years, there’s no hint of the pervasive anger and tribalism beforehand, making the eventual eruption feel sudden and forced. Perhaps an explicit focus on the downtrodden and impoverished masses, even in a brief scene, would make the climax feel more realistic.
The final moments also feel unfortunately clunky. Each scene seems like a perfectly natural place for the credits to role, as if Phillips couldn’t quite decide which ending he liked most. Regardless, Joker is a film that deserves your attention, flaws and all.
Image: Diana Ringo via Wikipedia