Joker follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a miserable loner who is always down on his luck. Arthur lives with his mother, taking care of her in a dilapidated apartment. His work life is not much better, working as a clown for hire for a ton of miscellaneous jobs and his aspiring stand-up comedy career isn’t getting any laughs out of the crowd. His medical condition of laughing uncontrollably during stressful situations doesn’t help him much either. And to top all that off – he lives in the grimy Gotham city, which shares the likeness of the dirty streets of 1970s New York and repeatedly gives him both metaphorical & literal beatings, further plunging him into madness.
Joker is fundamentally a narrative-driven film. Don’t expect big explosions and actions, but instead a look into the tragedy of a man slowly losing his sanity. And as a character study of the origin of the Joker -it mostly succeeds. There is enough there to convincingly show Arthur’s descent into madness. And once he finally becomes the Joker, it leads to a tense unnerving final act that will make you sink into your seat.
The highlight of the film is Joaquin Phoenix’s phenomenal acting, giving what likely may become an Oscar-winning performance. His turn from a pathetic loner to a confident maniac is engrossing to watch. Simple choices such as the change in Arthur’s walking stance throughout the movie to his malnourished body give extra layers to the character which makes him more intriguing. Furthermore, Phoenix’s performance creates conflict in the audience by creating both sympathy and disgust for the character, as well as making the audience question how to truly feel. It is an amazing performance that is the main appeal of the film.
However, for all its excellence in demonstrating Arthur’s turn to the Joker, the movie feels as if it didn’t know how to properly articulate its main themes and ideas. Joaquin’s performance, as excellent as it is, sometimes feels as if it’s carrying the movie and covering the cracks in the story. The film also tries to bring up social commentaries such as wealth inequality and lack of government but fails to make anything deeper than a shallow statement. It often feels like it thinks it’s more profound than it really is, and believes that simply blaming “society” is enough to make it a deep statement.
Another glaring issue is the movie’s ending. After a tense, unnerving but great sequence at the start of the Third Act, the film seems like it doesn’t know where to end in its last few minutes. It painfully drags on until the final ending given doesn’t feel like the right one.
Joker is a simple story with some good moments that are elevated by Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, the soundtrack, and the impressive visuals. However, for all it does right, it falters in many other areas where it plants some interesting seeds but never truly embraces them, not allowing them to grow to their full potential. Nevertheless, Joker succeeds in being an intriguing character study of an iconic character, that never quite reaches its potential.
Simon O. ’20