Joker – Contemporary Tour De Force


2019’s most controversial movie, Joker, might not be a Disney “feel-good,” or a Marvel action extravaganza, but it’s the closest fans are going to get to a perfect psychological thriller. Protagonist Joaquin Phoenix is pictured here.

Miguel Calle J., Editor-in-Chief

As humans, we usually assort objects, moments, and unfortunately, people, into two categories: good or bad. We are swift to judge and prompt to ostracize without delving deeper into the reasoning behind a situation. This has never been clearer than in director Todd Phillips’s jarring new movie, Joker, a character study of a man who can’t be classified as either hero or villain.  

Joker is the best movie of the year, and there are two people to thank: the protagonist, Joaquin Phoenix, and the director, Todd Phillips. Now the highest-grossing R-rated film and the second-best reviewed movie of the decade, this is one of the few pieces that I would call a “masterpiece.” True cinephiles know not to use that word lightly.

The acting in this movie is what makes it stand out. In 2018, Joaquin Phoenix – a seasoned performer who should have achieved Oscar gold with his performance as Commodus in Gladiator – was selected to play the “Clown Prince of Crime.” Phoenix inspected Heath Ledger’s depiction of the popular DC antihero, along with Jack Nicholson’s, to frame his portrayal, while also borrowing a page or two from Robert De Niro’s extensive book on how to play deranged sociopaths. However, Phoenix decided to take the role to a place it had never gone before. Away from the manic intensity of previous Jokers, this version presents a sorrowful, dejected man (Arthur Fleck) pushed aside to the margins of society by the affluent and powerful. Remarkably, it is Fleck we see for the majority of the film’s runtime until he embraces his newfound alter-ego of “Joker” and runs rampant in some of the movie’s most graphic scenes. Phoenix’s acting is brilliant throughout, both as Fleck and Joker; thus, he is an early frontrunner to win Hollywood’s most coveted prize, and it is easy to see why. Phoenix turns in a masterful performance which might just be one of the finest in film history. A loss at the Oscars come February would be a travesty, destroying the credibility of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. His every movement in this picture is sublime: we can sense the excruciating pain as he could not contain his laughter, comprehend his physical fragility as he dances in his run-down apartment, and even empathize with him during his multiple murders.

Additionally, an unexpected genius emerged as this film was in development. In order to understand the magnitude of Todd Phillips’s achievement, one needs to look no further than his past. This is the same man responsible for the Hangover trilogy and several other mediocre comedies; albeit, with Joker, he has managed to draw comparisons to one of film’s directing legends: Martin Scorsese. Indeed, many aspects of Phillips’ creation resemble those Scorsese beget. Travis Bickle, the main character in Taxi Driver, is witnessing the moral decay of New York in the midst of his psychotic behavior as he is continuously abandoned by society. Fleck, like Bickle, observes the corrosion of Gotham, NYC’s parallel in the DC universe. In both cases, the ethical implosions of the worlds these characters live in exacerbate their mental illnesses. Phillips conveys the downfall of Gotham by exhibiting it as a separate living entity that has “lost its way.” The opening narration by a TV newscaster, in which he announces that the streets are infested with rats as a consequence of trash being everywhere and that the people are irascible because of it, does not influence the storyline at all, yet is crucial in our understanding of Fleck’s world. The film is replete with directorial decisions like that, which make a colossal difference in the quality of the final product. Scorsese’s pictures are suffused with those decisions too. Hence, we should expect Michael Bay to turn into Alfred Hitchcock any day now, because formerly subpar directors, like Phillips, are starting to conceive superlative movies.  

Nevertheless, Joker is not a movie that should be universally seen. It is R-rated, after all, and with good reason. The film is violent, and not violent in a silly, Rambo kind of way, but violent in a Tarantino-like manner: explicit and disconcerting. Furthermore, many critics and viewers have denounced the movie for glorifying brutality and homicide, and are afraid that the film will inspire even more gunfire in the United States. The violence hits close to home for many families in Colorado, where a mass shooting occurred inside a theater in Aurora during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. The shooter, incidentally, was dressed as the Joker. Nonetheless, that argument is nonsensical since almost every movie released worldwide contains violence to a certain degree. If Joker should be censured for that reason, then why were critics mute when John Wick or Kill Bill hit the screens? 

Even though many pundits would want you to believe otherwise, those who watch movies not to enjoy, but to think, shall find an astounding intellectual piece in Joker. They will also encounter an unsettling rendition of the world we live in, a director in total command of his craft, and an artist on his way to the Mount Olympus of acting.