‘Joker’ delivers sobering and polished cinematic experience

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‘Joker’ delivers sobering and polished cinematic experience

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck in Todd Phillips' 'Joker'

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck in Todd Phillips' 'Joker'

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck in Todd Phillips' 'Joker'

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck in Todd Phillips' 'Joker'

Antonio Pequeño IV, Editor-in-Chief

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With respect to the divisive dialogue surrounding the release of Todd Phillips’ Joker, let’s make something abundantly clear: When art discards its true vision and message so that it may comfort the anxieties and insecurities of the climate it is created for, art dies. Suffice to say, Joker does no such thing.

Joker follows the mentally ill and hyper-isolated character of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). Resident of a stifling and gritty Gotham City, Fleck dreams of progressing past his dead-end job as a street clown to become a stand-up comedian. Rejected, beaten and outright dogged by society at every turn, Fleck’s descension into madness and transformation into a violent criminal is mirrored by the faltering law and order in Gotham.

Evident by any synopsis of the film that you can find, the story of Joker isn’t particularly dynamic or unique and is relatively predictable (with a few exceptions). As an audience member, you understand what’s going to play out over the course of the two hour film but the kicker is, you can’t possibly understand how things are going to play out. Although the story isn’t special, the exceptional talent behind Joker makes damned sure that the execution is.

Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is nothing short of incredible. Fleck’s downward spiral is one of steady progression, a progression that is masterfully commandeered by Phoenix. Fleck already has plenty wrong with him when the film starts but even so, his psyche is repetitively chipped away at with each passing scene and somehow, Phoenix is able to embody that marvelously.  Particularly, Fleck’s transformation into Joker requires a performance that can not only display an exceptional emotional range, but one that can also oscillate between emotions without coming off as too tryhard. 

The crowning achievement of Phoenix’s performance is that it breathes a uniqueness that makes itself devoid of comparison to other iterations of Joker. Bolstered by the film’s writing and production team, this performance and depiction of Joker is genuinely special and can stand alone with conviction. 

Although Phoenix carries Joker, due diligence and great respect must be paid to the film’s directing, set design and music. 

Director Todd Phillips set out to do something unique with something that isn’t inherently special, that being, making a comic book movie in an era of film where doing so is a championed standard. In an interview with TheWrap, Phillips said, “Look at this as a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film.” Using the spectacle and grandioseness of most current comic book films as reference for what a contemporary comic book film is, one could say that Phillips succeeded. The intense character study of Fleck/Joker is an introspective work that is grounded, harsh and distressing.

Something that serves to hammer home the tone put forth by Phillips and company is Joker’s set design. Production Designer Mark Friedberg put together a Gotham that is as disgusting as it is imposing. Fleck may be put through the wringer by other human beings, but you can’t help but feel like Gotham is party to the pain inflicted upon him with how dark and oppressive its essence is. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher flawlessly utilizes Friedberg’s set work with deviceful shots backed by a subtle, yet well-utilized color palette. 

Last but certainly not least on what deserves praise from the film is Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s music. Pulling back to the note of Fleck’s steady character progression and transformation, the cello-centric score mirrors it perfectly. The composition of each song weaves in and out of somber and chilling tones that mesh well with everything that Fleck endures. Notably, the song that accompanies one of the film’s final scenes is a boisterous and tragic pay off in itself. Hats off to Guðnadóttir for composing the entire score using only the screenplay. 

Joker is a genuinely haunting experience held together by spectacular acting and an impressive directorial vision. Phillips has set a distinctive standard for “comic book” films moving forward and it’s going to be exciting to witness where we go from here. 

Critiques and praise aside, Joker is important in that it has rattled critics and audience members alike into a dialogue that cannot and should not be avoided. Go watch this film, be bothered by it and let the art speak for itself.

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