Joaquin Phoenix Shines in Joker

I think it’s safe to say no movie in recent memory has achieved the level of controversy as Todd Phillips’ Joker. For the past few months, the media has made it seem like this film will be a lightning rod for incel (“involuntary celibate;” a group of people unable to find romantic partners and who often display misogynist tendencies due to this) related violence that could lead to possible military intervention. Now, as someone who has seen the film, I believe these reactions are completely overblown. Right off the bat, this film doesn’t portray The Joker’s violent behavior as virtuous. Instead, it treats his acts of violence as horrifying displays of brutality. It’s a shame that so many people have already condemned this film, because while Joker isn’t perfect, it’s still an extremely well-made, and effectively disturbing, piece of cinema that deserves to be subject to a more open and level-headed conversation. 

Joker is a character study, focused on Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a failed comedian whose mental instabilities are only worsened by the cruel and uncaring world around him. The film follows Fleck as he transforms from a mild-mannered doormat into the clown prince of crime known as The Joker. We also see how some of the important people in Fleck’s life influence his transformation, including his mother (Frances Conroy), his neighbor (Zazie Beetz), and talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). However, most of this film’s screen time is dedicated to Joaquin Phoenix’s character, meaning this movie lives and dies based on his performance. Thankfully, he proves he is more than up to the task. 

Phoenix is simply mesmerizing, from his impressive physicality and chilling body language to his haunting delivery. Part of what makes this performance so brilliant is how Phoenix manages to keep his character sympathetic as he becomes progressively more terrifying, which is what makes watching this film so unnerving. While the rest of the cast all does a fine job, they aren’t given as much to work with. Great actors like Zazie Beetz, Brian Tyree Henry, and Frances Conroy are sadly given very thin and basic material. The only supporting actor who makes any kind of impression is Robert de Niro, who manages to exude a larger than life persona. That being said, the film doesn’t really need strong supporting characters since Phoenix’s character is in almost every single frame of this film, and he is always captivating. 

While Phoenix keeps this movie afloat, it’s Todd Phillips’ work behind the camera that propels the film into greatness. His direction is masterful in capturing the dark and grimy atmosphere of 70s cinema, which this film was clearly inspired by. He even makes up for some of the derivative nature of the script. While I was constantly invested in the story, I’d be lying if I said I was surprised by any of the twists and turns it took. If you’ve seen Taxi Driver, or one of its imitators, then you know the beats that this film will hit, but it still hits them extremely well. 

So while this movie isn’t perfect, I’d still highly recommend you’d see Joker. It’s an incredibly well-acted and well-made film that harkens back to an era of cinema that we don’t really get to see anymore. I’d be interested to hear other opinions against the film, as this is the kind of movie that’s intriguing regardless of whether or not you liked it. Either way, if you want a brilliantly disturbing character study, please check out Todd Phillips’ Joker

Grade A-