Cinematic Releases: Now They Know I Exist: Joker (2019) - Reviewed

When a character has been around as long as the Joker has (almost eighty years), it's interesting to see how each iteration changes to reflect the times. Joker has slowly evolved from a campy trickster to a sociopathic killer, partly thanks to the dark comic book reinvention of the '80s, and one has to wonder: where can the character go now? Todd Phillips has decided to make a film about the class divide, but given the current cultural fascination with superhero lore, he re-contextualizes this message with the familiar iconography of the Joker.

The film has a few recognizable beats. Gotham is still the city of choice, though it's much less stylized than it has previously been, and feels much more like the real New York City it was modeled after. The Wayne family is a force in the city. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a down-on-his-luck clown with aspirations of being a successful stand up comedian, is barely scraping by. He is plagued by a growing apathy for life, he has emotional problems, and his living conditions are poor. If it wasn't for his dreams and the love of his elderly mother (whom he lives with) he would have nothing to live for.

On paper, this sounds like the sympathetic villain that many people feared, but Phoenix's performance cements the execution of a chaotic killer who has jumped into the deep end. Yes, like all good characters, this Joker is nuanced and not without external motivations that shape his character arc. However, Phoenix imbues him with this barely contained insanity that threatens to spill over at any given second. Rarely is Arthur portrayed as cool and confident--he is awkward, bumbling, creepy, and prone to embarrassing outbursts. 

Arthur is incredibly underweight, his clothes hang off him in a unattractive manner. He's gaunt, a wraith that just barely takes up enough physical space to exist. Phoenix is absolutely the nucleus of the narrative, so much so that the film elements surrounding him sometimes struggle to keep up with his astounding method acting. The transitions from scene-to-scene feel disjointed, but that may have been intentional to mimic the frame-of-mind of the protagonist (and an unreliable narrator).

Thematically, Joker is less about the downfall of a man, and more about the circumstances that facilitate individuals like him. It highlights the people who have fallen through the cracks in the system. Surprisingly, Thomas Wayne is taken to task somewhat (but not enough) and the film explores the privileges that his wealth affords him. He is a rather clueless rich person whose money has given him the ability to distance himself from the squalid conditions of most of Gotham. His platitudes mean nothing to those who live day-to-day in the fringe areas of the city. He's not exactly the antagonist of the film, but he's close.

Joker is gorgeously filmed with lots of close-up shots (that showcase Phoenix's great facial expressions), beautiful vintage looking color-grading, and excellent framing. Aesthetically, it's going for an early '80s Scorsese look and it nails it. Personally, it doesn't bother me when directors take inspiration from other directors they respect. The music, composed by Icelandic musician Hildur Guðnadóttir, is haunting. Low ominous strings lay the foundation for the occasional lilting melody and there is also copious use of actual songs as well.

There are times, especially in the third act, where the film does flirt with the idea having Joker be the underdog, and to be honest, the most compelling villains always have some aspects of them that are relatable, even if it's to a small degree. There is also the tendency for the audience to want to empathize with the protagonist of the film, and there are a few parts where this compulsion is used to subvert the viewer's expectations.

Joker is an ambitious film, and though it just can't quite match the performances with technical prowess, it makes up for it with a compelling character study and some lofty themes.

--Michelle Kisner