WARNING: There will be spoilers for this film. This film is rated MA 15+, and is not suitable for younger audiences. There are mentions of mental illness and violence within this review.
By Olivia Holmes
One of the most hyped up and successful films of 2019, and with Awards season already in full swing, I have to ask: Is it worth all the hype?
This film has been and is highly debated for its merit. Are we glorifying some parts while ignoring the problems? Or are we focusing too much on the bad parts that we overshadow the good?
Before I get into the full spoiler-review, I'll give my spoiler-free thoughts on it, in case you haven't seen it yet. I thought this movie was good, a solid 7/10. The soundtrack is nothing short of incredible and Joaquin Phoenix's performance was worth all the hype, but there are a few parts that hold it back. Unfortunately, to go any further we must delve into spoiler territory.
Now… let's get to the film. Full spoiler's ahead.
Part 1: What the Film Did Right
Joaquin Phoenix's Performance as Arthur Fleck/Joker
For the first time since Shark Tale was nominated for an Oscar, (yes - 2004 was a dark era) they did something right. Phoenix's win is justified completely, as this is one of his best performances ever. He disappeared into the role of Arthur Fleck, I saw him as his character inside and out. The talent that goes into a role like this is immense, to be able to be such a good actor that your audience still sympathises and empathises after your character has killed people is beyond fathomable. It takes a lot of talent to keep the audience on your side through a film like this, luckily for us, Phoenix does.
Hildur Guðnadóttir's Score
Again, I agree with the Oscars this time. Having worked on the miniseries Chernobyl, I knew we were in good hands for this score. The textured details in this soundtrack are incredible, like the use of metal in high tension scenes, and the strings. What can I say about those strings that haven't already been said? Using strings in this film is amazing at not giving the audience the emotion they're supposed to feel, but emphasises and heightens them. The true star of the show is that cello. That iconic leitmotif throughout the film makes Joker. A fun fact about them: Guðnadóttir wrote the music for that iconic bathroom scene before they even started filming, and that dancing was all Phoenix's idea. It goes to show that music that amazing cannot be a brought down to formula or plans.
There are more things that I could add, but they aren't enough to need an entire paragraph. For example, the cinematography is amazing, it is very much grounded in reality. There are no drone shots, no fancy angles and most of the film is at eye-level, which helps ground the viewer into reality, and doesn't rely on spectacle. The filming locations also help to create a sense of reality. It's dirty, imperfect, and gloomy, which adds more atmosphere than if it was all CGI with very little practical sets or location.
The transition from the death of Arthur Fleck and the birth of Joker is also very good. "Joker" doesn't emerge until about half-an-hour in the movie, and we're given a lot of time to get to know Arthur and his life before he snaps. This makes the transformation even more effective and heart wrenching.
Finally, I like how unreliable Arthur is as a narrator. He recounts things out of order and hallucinates, as well as the ending of the film implying that the entire movie may have been a story. Did he start a movement? Did he do anything? While this made a lot more sense on my second viewing, it makes sense that he would be unreliable. He has a high degree of self-pity, so skewing the story in his favour makes sense. As well as making things up- like his imaginary girlfriend that he only talked to once in reality- it adds more mystery to the movie, whether these works is completely up to the viewer though. That last line could've made the movie or ruined it for you.
Part 2: What the film did...eh
Representation of Mental Illness
While I found this to be a problem, I have no experience on it. So, here's a long quote to explain it from an article from The Guardian, about the depiction of mental illness in Joker. I'm not well versed enough, but it is a serious problem.
"However, severe mental health conditions, such as psychotic illnesses, remain shrouded in stigma and are consistently misrepresented and misunderstood. Portrayals of mental illness in film can perpetuate unfounded stereotypes and spread misinformation. One of the more toxic ideas that Joker subscribes to is the hackneyed association between serious mental illness and extreme violence. The notion that mental deterioration necessarily leads to violence against others – implied by the juxtaposition of Phoenix’s character Arthur stopping his medication with his increasingly frequent acts of violence – is not only misinformed but further amplifies stigma and fear."
Thanks, Guardian, I couldn't have said it better myself, because I have no place to say anything better.
Again, the rest of my complaints can't quite fill an entire paragraph so I can list them off:
First, the scene where Bruce's parents died felt very tacked on, and, I know that Batman's parents die, that's the whole reason Batman is Batman. I will say I like that a person inspired by Joker killed them, not a henchman.
Another thing I don't love is a particular scene. While the talk show scene was good, and the "you get what you deserve" was a subversion of my expectations. While it was a poignant and strong statement when he went into the "if I was lying dead on the street" spiel, it's out of character. He was talking a few seconds ago about how nothing can hurt him and everything's funny. It's reverting to his feelings of the first act, not of the realised Joker.
Finally, motivation was very unclear. I can get the short-term motivation for most of the movie, but I'm not too sure what he wants. I understand that he feels left behind by society and his condition makes his life harder, but that didn't feel like a good excuse for murder. Sometimes it felt like motivation was very weak. Does he want fame? Revenge? Justice? Most of his actions aren't to start a movement or for justice for the forgotten; they're for selfish reasons. He killed Randal because he got him fired, he killed those Wall-Street guys because he was beaten up by them. He doesn't care about the treatment of others, only how he's treated.
So, what do you think?
I wouldn't say I'm someone is completely in love with everything in the film, and as stated above I find that there are some big problems, but it also did some things well. The score, the acting and the cinematography is amazing and very well done. Phoenix is a very good Joker, Guðnadóttir's score is incredible, and the good things at least for me overshadow the bad. So, I'd call it an Almost-Masterpiece.