Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro
Director: Todd Phillips
Running Time: 122 mins
Joker is an American film about Arthur Fleck, a struggling comedian suffering with mental illness, who turns the tables on society and launches a life of crime in the city of Gotham.
People often talk about great films that, no matter how impressive, they would never watch again. And for me, Joker is absolutely one of those films. A stunning, bold and deeply powerful drama, there’s no denying that it’s one of the year’s best films, furthered by groundbreaking directing and an electrifying lead performance from Joaquin Phoenix. However, it’s so devastating, so bleak and at times so, so, so dark that it ultimately proves to be a genuinely terrifying watch, and far from the most pleasant two hours you’ll ever spend at the movies.
There’s so much to talk about with Joker, and as controversial as it often is, it’s difficult to deny what a great piece of filmmaking it really is. Unpleasant and hopelessly devastating it may be, Joker pushes all the boundaries (and then some) in search of a powerful depiction of the darkest corners of modern society, conjuing up one of the bleakest visions of the world that you’re likely to ever come across.
Already a heart-wrenching watch as it follows the breakdown of the innocent but troubled Arthur Fleck, the film deals with the complexities and devastating realities of mental illness, and then adds a further punch to the gut with the terrible treatment Fleck receives in daily life, with every moment and person he meets adding yet another bit of fuel to the fire of his increasingly deranged and angered view of the world.
It’s by no means an uplifting message, with Joker taking a devastatingly pessimistic perspective on modern society, dragging you further and further into a hole of deep, deep fear and darkness where it’s impossible to find even the smallest glimmer of hope. Leaving its comic book links aside, Joker is on a level of devastating darkness akin to the likes of Requiem For A Dream, Irreversible and more.
Couple that with very graphic violence and occasionally questionable morals, and you have a film that is certainly not your average comic book fare. It’s hugely impressive to see from DC, taking a bold and unprecedentedly serious take on their comic properties – light years away from Marvel’s style – but it’s not a film to be compared in any way with the modern superhero genre, and definitely not something that should be seen by children.
Joker is at times such a dark watch, and with such a twisted perspective on the modern world, that it really does feel like it would be dangerous and frankly irresponsible to be seen in the same arena as the more fanciful worlds of Marvel and DC blockbusters.
What you have here is a deep character study filled with horrifying psychodrama and bleak social commentary. There are a few winks and nods to Joker’s Batman affiliation, but make no mistake: this is a very serious film, and with such frighteningly real drama and often horrifying violence, should be treated as such.
Director Todd Phillips does an incredible job at bringing that twisted vision of the world to life in such terrifying fashion, combining that bleak social commentary with an almost traumatisingly theatrical atmosphere, cynically laughing on as we watch a man and wider society continue to descend into an inescapably dark pit.
Phillips really does break all the rules here, pushing the boundaries far beyond what most would dare go near for a ‘mainstream’ movie, so controversy and backlash is absolutely inevitable. Cinematically, Joker is hugely impressive, and Phillips brings style and devastating opera to the table, as well as striking but dark and grimey production design, simply adding just that little more bleakness to every single scene.
Joaquin Phoenix is spectacular in the lead role, brilliantly portraying a man who – despite his best intentions – is simply being eaten and crushed by the world around him. From his brilliant physical performance to the deeply unsettling cackles and characteristics he brings to Arthur Fleck, he does so much to make this film as shocking and overwhelming as can be. Again, it’s not pleasant, but it really, really does the job when telling the story that it wants to.
The film’s parallels to Martin Scorsese classics like Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy are clear throughout, but there are times when Joker goes much, much further than either of those films – at times going a little too far in my opinion.
It’s never gratuitous, but it gives such a twisted portrayal of society and morality that it can feel rather upsetting, particularly with a final act that is truly shocking for a big studio movie, let alone one that you might think of as a comic book movie.
In short, Joker is an astonishing, but truly devastating watch. Featuring stunning drama, brilliant social commentary, exhilarating directing and a spectacular lead performance, it’s one of the boldest and most memorable films you’ll have seen in a very long time. But with such a bleak perspective of the world, it’s an overwhelming watch, with drama far darker and more real than most films will ever dare to show. Joker isn’t for the faint of heart, and even for those who do make it through unscathed, it’s something that you’ll not want to go back to immediately, no matter how good it is, and that’s why I’m giving it an 8.4.