‘Joker’ Movie Review: The Descent to Atrophied Madness & Anarchy

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (2019)

This review first appeared on TVMovieFix.

“We are all clowns.” It’s hard to see the silver lining in anything, especially in a society plagued by poverty and decay. That’s precisely what Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck has to wade his way through in Todd Phillips’ Joker. It’s one thing to encounter numerous forms of bad luck in one day; it’s another to steadily be pushed to the edge by it every single day.

In the midst of all the negative media coverage that the DC film is getting, Joker stands as a seething social commentary disguised as an alternate take on one of DC’s most feared and revered villains. Arthur is an already-broken man that society and his immediate surrounding slowly transforms into a resentful anarchist. The Joker’s comic book origins are a bit obscure (with the most popular and widely accepted origin being the Ace Chemicals acid vat accident), but Phillips gives depth and a whole new definition to the iconic character.

A Bold Character Reimagining

Arthur suffers from the pseudobulbar affect, a mental disorder that makes him laugh uncontrollably and inappropriately. But that’s just barely scratching the surface. Deep inside Arthur’s psychologically scarred psyche is a person who’s driven by trauma, delusion, and violent tendencies. Critics were quick to attack Joker’s themes of violence and mental illness, branding it from an incel sympathizing movie to a romanticization of a deranged mass murderer’s psychopathic tendencies. This is clearly blown out of proportion. If anything, the movie tastefully uses violence and themes of public freakout to its advantage. Instead, it narrows down on how a society overseen by the rich and powerful continue to lambast its poor citizens.

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (2019)
Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures

This is all done to perfectly establish a solid foundation for Arthur’s Joker persona, all the while setting the puzzle pieces of his sinister and awful character. This is who Joker is, and what he’s going to be in the future. Phoenix’s take on the Joker doesn’t fall flat; in fact, it adds a precise layer of gravitas to how his fate as Batman’s number one foe comes to life.

Joker is a provocative statement, one that refuses to play safe and dismantles the usual popcorn experience of a comic book film. It’s possessed by the spirit of an enraged maniac with destruction as its rallying cry throughout its two-hour runtime.

There are many iterations of Joker throughout popular culture, but nothing comes as close to the perfection that Heath Ledger gave in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. That said, Phoenix’s portrayal adds more to what Ledger started. It’s hard to compare the two as both actors gave an iconic performance that’s worthy of critical acclaim. If you’re looking for an answer to the Ledger vs. Phoenix narrative, you won’t get any. Both Jokers complement each other.

Robert DeNiro and Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (2019)
Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures

Beauty in Joker’s Chaos

Joker is nothing short of Phillips’ masterwork. It’s a definitive comic book movie that strays far from where the DC Extended Universe sees itself with AquamanWonder Woman, and Shazam!. It ups the ante by creating a narrative that sets its sights on Joker’s homicidal tendencies and penchant for inciting violence. Phillips, together with writing partner Scott Silver (8 Mile), created a world in which incels and do-gooders live in a constant state of friction with added pressure from the rich. It’s basically a breeding ground of urban decay with no glimmer of hope.

The writing is exceptional—a direct homage to The Dark Knight’s amazing dialogue and pace. From Arthur’s trivial problem of people always being rude to him, to the most shocking bombshell line in the movie (“What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?!), it holds nothing back to its overall theme of mental descent. Phoenix is a brilliant performer, one that’s subconsciously tied to Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” but making sure to untether itself from Joker’s comic book origins in place of something boldly fresh (save for Gotham City and a few characters from the main Batman lore).

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (2019)
Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures

If you break it down to its very core, Joker is nothing short of a brilliant character study that shows us how he got to the point of utter madness and destruction.

‘Joker’ Overall Verdict

Joker is tactfully violent, carefully gory, and equally terrifying in its entirety. The movie doesn’t only bring in the creeps when heightened scenes are on display; it also gives you the feeling of dread even in the film’s quiet, intimate moments. There’s a certain kind of uneasiness as you watch Joker’s story unfold knowing that this person isn’t well, and not even the wonders of psychiatry can provide a mundane cure. It also plays into the damaging idea of self-destruction and hopelessness.

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (2019)
Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures

Again, it’s worth noting that Joker sets itself apart as one of cinema’s best in terms of well-thought-out filmmaking. It’s a movie that you experience and not just watch with a bag of popcorn and some drinks. Lawrence Sher’s cinematography provides an artful backdrop and a fitting atmosphere of Gotham City in the throes of dissolution. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s masterful musical score brings a defeated sense of finality to Phoenix’s character and offers an illustrious mood that only makes the movie more menacing and effective.

Joker is a tale that’s not for the faint of heart as some scenes are straight up very difficult to take in. But no matter how you see this movie—origin film, standalone story, whathaveyou—it’s definitely a fitting story of a man who’s destined to be the Clown Prince of Crime. From a poor disassociated basket case to a shining beacon of death and destruction, Joker is a stunningly gorgeous film that gloriously manifests one’s descent to atrophied madness and anarchy.

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