"Joker" Review: The Beautiful, Dark, & Twisted Origin Story
With Warner Bros officially creating a new movie genre, DC Black (DC- based standalone films), who better a character to start with than with their most iconic villain himself, the Joker? With all the great actors who’ve played the villain (Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Mark Hamil and Jared Leto) my initial thought was that it was going to be hard to fill those sinister clown shoes. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Director Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix take the comic book villain and give him a beautifully dark, twisted, gritty anti-hero reintroduction.
Taking a few pages out of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver with character development and some references, Phillips peels back the layers of the complex character to humanize him and show how he began his path of brutal destruction. This is a period place that takes place in the early 80’s and shows the grislier and faint side of Gotham City like we’ve never seen it. It follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally ill misfit, who works as a clown by day and failed comedian by night. His journey to menacing criminal is perhaps all the more horrific because it’s grounded in reality.
One of the opening images is of Fleck, working as a clown, looking in the mirror while contorting his face into that creepy, iconic smile while laughing uncontrollably from his pathological laughing disorder while crying. It’s immediately followed by a portrait of the city of Gotham, and it’s not compassionate to say the least. In the first few minutes Fleck endures mental and physical abuse by everyone from his job, his therapist, civilians, his job again, and then his mother (Francis Conroy). It’s a hard watch. Throughout the movie this seems to be a trend as life itself continues to punch Fleck in the face, increasing its power at every turn. In his lighter moments, when life isn’t knocking him down, he pursues a career in comedy. His jokes are dark and twisted, writing what he believes society deems as funny, wishing to one day be on the Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) late night show.
Something that sets this movie apart is the progression of Fleck’s character. He evolves from and awkward, gentle loner to the malicious, confident Joker. Robert De Niro and Zazzie Beetz interactions with Phoenix give more depth to the character’s development with their limited but memorable interactions as Fleck’s idol and love interest respectively. Conroy also helps identify some of the loose ends of his childhood that viewers may find interesting. Rather than being eaten by the dog eat dog world, Fleck eventually embraces it with a cynical twist that feels so natural.
This is ultimately a standalone film that we’ve never seen in the comic universe that has a sinister and refreshing twist to it. It’s well crafted, with a vintage, grunge look that captures the mood and tone being portrayed in the film. From beginning to end, Phoenix owns the character. It has remnants and a few nods to them but Phoenix pushed my perception of the character or new uncharted anti-hero territory. The only knock I have toward the movie is the slow, build but once it started you were invested. Overall the casting, the story, the development and the conclusion of this film is phenomenal and gives you the ultimate satisfaction of an origin story. I wouldn’t be surprised if this movie gets an Oscar nod.