You would never look at Todd Phillips filmography of “The Hangover” trilogy and “War Dogs,” and think to yourself, this guy could make one of the most controversial comic book adaptations of the year.
There are many elements to “Joker” that work in unison to create a unique experience. The idea of creating an entirely new screen mythology for one of the most well-known DC comic villains and telling it from his perspective.
Also following the vein of an indie movie that’s deeply artistic, with some of the year’s best production design, art direction and costuming. Not to mention an innovative original score by composer and musician Hildur Guonadottir (“Arrival,” “The Revenant”) that somehow connects everything together making “Joker” a chilling and intuitive cinematic experience.
The buzz surrounding the film unfortunately focuses on the violence, there are far more violent films out this year. If you have followed Joaquin Phoenix (“The Master”, “Her”) career you already know he can and has played these types of mentally disturbed, socially withdrawn characters before that all seemed to prepare him for doing it on this larger scale.
“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) admits he hasn’t been happy a single day of his life. Despite working as a clown for a living promoting smiles and happiness, he still lives with his ailing mother Penny (Frances Conroy) in a grungy apartment building.
Gotham City’s rapidly deteriorating living conditions is no laughing matter. He dreams of a successful career as a standup comedian, but Arthur isn’t well equipped for public speaking.
Mental hospitals, therapy and medication, he has tried everything to feel better, nothing works. When mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) calls the poor citizens of Gotham “clowns” following a brutal subway murder, Arthur decides to take his day job in a different direction. Arthur’s actions and Wayne’s PR flub send the city into open revolt.
The opening moments of “Joker,” introduce the audience to a confident vision from Phillips. The color pallets packed into every frame are exceptional. In one scene where Arthur bathes his mother, a single frame contains purple, mustard yellow, light greens, pink and glowing blue from the opposing shot.
For such a dark film, “Joker” is bursting with color for added irony. The blazing mustard yellow hue is ubiquitous and aids in defining this unstated past in which these characters exist. The costume designer has our antagonist in wardrobe that’s reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s incarnation of the character, but the outfits evolve along with Arthur’s madness.
The cinematography is also exquisite, Lawrence Sher (“The Hangover”) delivers career-defining work. The film’s role in this year’s award race depends on voters embracing Phoenix’s performance and how well the film does in the technical categories.
Phoenix’s first Oscar nomination was for playing the demented Roman Emperor Commodus in “Gladiator” (2000), his most recent was another mentally unstable character in “The Master” (2013).
The three-time nominee has built a career on embracing darker personalities leading him to this performance, which will dominate his work forever. Phillips and Phoenix walk a scary line of allowing the audience to empathize with Arthur (society often puts people in unforgiving situations), while never condoning his actions.
The script is an obvious allegory for modern times and fans the flame of comparison. There is more depth in this comic book adaptation than all the others since Christopher Nolan last took us to Gotham City.
Some of the most ingenious elements to “Joker” can’t be talked about in a review because of spoilers, but I will say Phillips finds a way to give reason and meaning to the characters iconic traits while simultaneously allowing this version to exist separate from the Batman mythology and work within it.
I wish all comic book films could strive for this type of brilliance.
Final Thought: Joker’s attention to detail and creativity combined with madness and a fully realized performance make it one of the most creative endeavors of the year.