Joker Review: A Cinematic Achievement (TIFF 2019)

"That's Life."


Joaquin Phoenix shines in a dark, gritty, character study about the infamous DC Comics villain


  I was able to see Joker at Tiff (The Toronto International Film Festival) this past week, and I have been thinking about it ever since. Joker is set in a 1980s Gotham, which is on the brink of collapse very similar to New York City during the time period. This film stars Joaquin Phoenix as a mentally-ill, failing professional clown, and aspiring stand-up comedian by the name of Arthur Fleck, who’s a caretaker for his ill mother.

Joaquin Phoenix delivers an absolutely breathtaking performance as Arthur Fleck (Joker) and is featured through the entirety of this film. The film focuses heavily on the mental health aspect of the character. Joker dives deep into the psychology of Arthur Fleck and even gives a fascinating origin to the infamous “Joker laugh”. It does a fantastic job at providing a point of view representing someone with the illnesses of Fleck.  Phoenix is able to master the child-like personality of Arthur Fleck, but at the same time, capture the sinister nature of The Joker. Phoenix’s performance leaves you feeling empathetic yet disturbed at what you have witnessed. Many will try to compare this performance to Heath Ledger’s, however I don’t believe it’s a fair comparison. Phoenix’s Joker is far different than Ledger’s and when you see this film you’ll understand this as well.

Phoenix’s performance is complimented with beautiful cinematography, a chilling score, and a masterfully written script. I’ve noticed many who have reviewed this film don’t give much credit to Todd Phillips and Scott Silver, but instead attribute all the credit to Phoenix. While Phoenix is incredible, Phillips’ and Silver’s story shows an absolutely perfect understanding of who The Joker is, how he sees the world, and how the world views him. The cinematography gets intimate at uncomfortable times, making Phoenix’s performance that much more unsettling. Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir creates a score that is masterfully put together. The soundtrack manages to feel as light, and as dark, as the character of Arthur Fleck.

While Phoenix is the star of this film, the supporting cast (though their screen-time was limited) played their roles wonderfully. Frances Conroy does an excellent job playing Arthur’s ill mother, Penny Fleck. Other notable performances include Zazie Beets as Sophie, Brett Cullen as Mayoral Candidate and businessman Thomas Wayne, and Robert De Niro as talk show host, Murray Franklin. The character of Murray Franklin is a nod to the 1982 film, The King of Comedy. De Niro’s performance is something that fans of the film will surely enjoy as it provides a theoretical evolution of the character we knew as Rupert Pumpkin.

The plot of this film is incredibly hard to talk about without spoiling anything. After the first half hour all of my expectations were thrown out the window. This film wants you to go in knowing as close to nothing as possible and I’ll adhere to that for this review. What I will say is  that I highly recommend watching The King of Comedy (1982) and Taxi Driver (1976), prior to going into this film. Joker draws heavy inspiration from these two Martin Scorsese films, especially King of Comedy.

Through parts of this film I laughed, I was saddened, I was shocked, confused, and horrified. However, by the time the credits had rolled on Joker, and the audience’s standing ovation had ended, I was left without words. I was speechless. Watching this film, you may share many of the same emotions I have, or you may feel a completely different way. This film will affect people differently. Though I am definitely anticipating many not agreeing with the social commentary of Joker, I believe the film anticipates and understands this.
Personally, I absolutely adored Joker. It is easily the best film I have seen all year, and much of the social commentary resonated within me on a deeper level. Director Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver created a film that gives an origin story ambiguity, which is the most Joker way possible to tell this story.

This film will have you thinking about it for days after you’ve seen it, and it most certainly necessitates a second viewing (at least).
Joker is a masterpiece, a very important, timely film that certainly, left me with a smile on my face.

Joker releases October 4th, 2019