Joaquin Phoenix, who plays the Joker, dances on a staircase in the Joker’s official movie poster.

London Williams

Possibly the most anticipated film of the year, DC’s Joker is a stand-alone backstory to one of the film industry’s most infamous and iconic villains. Todd Phillips’ film pulls audiences along a roller coaster of the psychological and emotional journey of Joker’s descent into madness. I left the theatre deep in thought, and with endless questions about the events of the movie itself but also some of the underlying messages. Joker is a story with two sides, depicting a murderous villain fighting the established peace, yet also paints a dramatic picture of a dark protagonist fighting against a flawed and cruel society. A combination of a complex message and plot and a very strong cast, Joker is a fantastic film and, so far, the best of the year.

So what makes it such a great film and performance? It surprised me with an even more extreme sense of “gritty” realism as in The Dark Knight, a stark contrast from the usual garish superhero movies DC is known for. In fact, you wouldn’t know it was a DC film if it weren’t for the credits and logo. Joker is an illustration of a troubled, mentally ill man named Arthur Fleck, struggling in an abusive, stigmatic society. His life of poverty, abuse, stigma, outcast, lies, and failure pushes him to the brink of suicide and madness until he can hold on no longer and falls. His spiraling plunge into darkness and unpredictable actions as well as unreliable narrator keeps the audience on their feet, held in suspense frame by frame. In the beginning, the audience couldn’t help but nervously laugh at what seemed to be an awkward opening, yet in reality, it was a deliberate scene that set the stage for the roller coaster of madness and torrent of emotions throughout the film. We enter the film following Arthur Fleck, whose poor life is a great tragedy, tossed through climactic event after climactic event until what finally emerges is the Joker, the clownish villain that lives a life that he believes is a comedy. It is that final stage and his transition that makes the Joker such a scary character and idea, in the way that he is an insane anarchist, an agent of chaos who cares about nothing and no one, including his own life, and sees everything simply as a big joke.

While the cast features familiar faces such as Robert De Niro and Brett Cullen, all eyes are on the Joker himself, Joaquin Phoenix. The movie itself would have been underwhelming if it wasn’t for Phoenix’s phenomenal performance. Joaquin Phoenix delivers an Oscar-worthy performance that is second only to that of the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. In fact, Phoenix’s portrayal of the Joker is equal and better in some respects, such as his spontaneous laugh, his uncomfortable, nervous mannerisms, and unsettling smile, coming about as close to the legendary performance of Ledger as possible. His bone-chilling laugh, erupting at the most spontaneous moments, instantly creates a tense, uncomfortable feeling. His bent, twisted demeanor, and pained smile reflects the Joker’s personality and character perfectly, the evolution of his body language following closely with Arthur Fleck’s violent mental journey. Every brave actor that dons the face paint and takes up such a challenging role features their own slightly (or sometimes extremely) different interpretation of the character, and the Joker’s newest outing is nothing short of brilliant. It would be false to claim that Joaquin Phoenix’s performance alone carried the film in its entirety, but without him, it would not be the masterpiece that it is.

The film, however great, has sparked more controversy than any film in recent years, stunning people with its obvious messages and ideas. Many people criticize it as “idolizing” the Joker and making him out to be a hero rather than a villain. This is only true to an extent, as the film portrays him as something of an anti-hero, yet also a villain, and a victim. Joker shows Arthur Fleck as a murderous psychopath, who feels no remorse or empathy as a pure villain, but that view is only part of the story. He is also shown as a victim of stigma and abuse, being assaulted and mistreated again and again as a result of his pathological laughter and mental illness. However, to complete his character, they show that despite his terrible actions, he is right about society and fights against it, doing bad things for an arguably good cause, which is a scary thought for the audience. Joker does a very good job of calling out stigma and bringing awareness to mental illness, and while some argue it encourages troubled young men with similar problems to act violently, especially in such an age of gun violence and shootings, the film is not about violence and does not encourage it, but in fact carries the real message speaking against the flaws in our own society and bringing awareness to mental instability. It is all of these contrasting messages and collage of images of Arthur that make Joker so great and make the Joker who he is as a character. 

The efforts made by a talented cast and skilled team make for an outstanding work of art. Joker is a film like no other, with profound depth and a grim reflection of reality that provokes thought and emotion. What really got to me about this film is not just the way it pulls you into the story happening on screen, but truly stirs your thoughts, and gets to your head. From the brilliant screenwriters and talented actors – Joaquin Phoenix above all – it is not a movie that entertains but one that enthralls, and the product is something that has already earned its place among great films. “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that hates him and treats him like garbage?” A fascinating backstory to an iconic villain and, simply put, a cinematic masterpiece.