Runtime: 2H 2M
Director: Todd Phillips
Production Company: Warner Bros, DC Films, Village Roadshow Pictures
A stark contrast of surroundings illuminates Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) as he sits in front of a mirror applying his infamous face mask. A zooming camera shot hints toward surrounding activity, a working days score of everyday noises ambience in chatter, card games and radio play, and the odd man himself, Arthur, who is not engaged with anything except his own face. He looks a lonely and pitiful figure. A clown, literally and by curse, who aspires to be a comedian while remaining the brunt of everyone’s jokes. The visceral camera focus and sullen tone of Gotham only enthuse the perception of this man’s loneliness and glaring weirdness from the moment the film begins. But most importantly it keeps you fixated on this individual’s story and asks you to watch. For me, the Joker is a film that asks you to take a look at yourself and how you reflect and impact other people’s lives. From the beginning, it is prompting you to consider “what is wrong with this guy?” by the end of the film you may be thinking “what is wrong with people?” and more importantly, questioning how you treat them. Having watched the film twice now, I understand why it led me to feel that way and I wanted to dive into its creation by expanding on the words of the creators themselves.
Overall, I think the Joker is a wonderful film, with enthralling cinematography that at times is simply spell bounding. Joaquin Phoneix’s display as Arthur Fleck was wonderful insofar as he lost 52lbs for the role, immersed himself in understanding the setting, and would spend hours at night discussing with Todd Phillips how they could play with so many aspects of the story. In an interview with Peter Travers, he explained his working relationship with Todd and how such collaboration is what excites him about filmmaking. He described the process as transformative, his most intense collaboration for a film. They bounced ideas back off each other constantly, and there was even a suggestion they go for a heavier route with the Joker instead of the skinny and frail. Although, his harrowing looks in the film is another facet of this character and the weight loss had to happen. Joaquin felt way more in tune with his body throughout this process, it was somewhat holistic and encouraged him to perform beyond his means. As a result, this impacted the character along the way. Specifically, this reminded me of a scene where the Joker frolics and dances. Joaquin stated he was starved at times during filming, and he very much looked it. What was captivating to me was his style while donning full makeup. He dances like a pantomime, swivels like a ballet dancer, but looks and acts like a maniacal clown. All this fused with a stunning score that creeps alongside your thoughts, it is a perfect marriage of notions portraying an unease. From the way Arthur expresses himself, the tailormade clown-shoes to the running style and childlike tone in voice, all were specific and necessary for his character to work.
As an origin story it seeps the Joker into a desolate and starved Gotham, the cast is not unnecessarily spread, and nothing felt out of place. It was a neatly contained movie and a standalone story that alluded to a few renditions of the Joker’s elusive past but did not relegate its potential to be fixed on just one. I find this was masterfully and purposefully done. Though very much grounded in the hypothetical city of Gotham, Todd Phillips, the director of the film, stated he witnessed the entirety of Gotham’s elements as characters alongside the Joker/Arthur Fleck, as it is an individual story. Hence the music, location and time-period, were all very much important. The film is set in 1981, and Gotham is on the brink in many ways. This is the basis Arthur Fleck develops from. My understanding of the Joker is as a phenomenon with multiple origins, one of the main nemeses of Batman’s, and a thrilling wildcard obsessed with rattling people’s cages. Though this film is different and exposed a route to understanding what could lead to ‘The Joker’ in this hypothetical setting. At its bare bones, the film itself makes me consider how we interact with people on a human level. There is a “one-upmanship” with communication, where we impose on each other, we see someone as weaker, a joke, and demean them whether playfully or at their expense, we are naturally inconsiderate by just how we exist. There’s a cold shoulder, lack of accountability and expectation to see people or help by not contributing to the animosity in already stressed lives. It contains a lot of nuance and elements of Gotham that mimic real inner swollen city livelihoods. Such as the coldness in acknowledging people, the preconceptions and status we exact on each other and the volatile and damaged states of mind.
I really appreciated Todd Phillips interpretation of Gotham and Joaquin Phoneix’s brilliance in acting. The film truly has a handmade feel. Another thing that impressed me was Todd asking the composer Hildur Guðnadóttir to write music, based only off material she read in the script. Joaquin’s performances were inspired by the sound written to the music, and I find that fantastic. Hildur also composed the Chernobyl (2019) series music, which makes a lot of sense, and the score is dark, unnerving and is very much a presence in the film. As someone who loves a score, I adore the composition of the film. Joaquin also had the freedom to utilise a room and see where he saw it best fit to perform a part of the script. Todd describes this all as the magic of making movies, and it certainly had an ethereal touch. Thinking about it, I actually love this film. It ticks all the impressionable boxes for me. Instead of a now usual Comic Book genre type film with “big CGI events” as Todd describes it, we received a deep dive into a character and the daunting city they’re from. There’s no overcooked action sequence that occurs just to show the violent range of the protagonist.
Joker is a perplexing story that recognises trauma through the lens of a psychological thriller. In conclusion, when asked about the criticism of mental health issues being related to an infamous character like Joker Joaquin stated how irresponsible it is to discuss. In this social media age, we do tend to look to critique and cancel as it’s a culture. For such media platforms to threat over cinema shootings or violence is indirectly inspiring, Todd Phillips even made some comments on this “woke culture” and how it has impacted comedy, this was his first thriller and it was more than well done. Similarly, to ideas within the film, I do not think woke culture has entirely overridden comedy, but it is more-so weary of the impact we have on each other. To what degree its concerns should be capitalised on I am unsure, but as long as the conversation is recognised and not simply damning, we always have something to learn.