A very notable artistic accomplishment by both Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix
Phoenix’s work is easier to tackle but I still feel like you could easily write 2000 words on it alone. The physical transformation (he shed 50+ lbs and shapes his body to accent his disorientation- he’s like a one man canted-angle), the manic laugh (when others don’t, and when they do, he doesn’t), the sympathy he earns, the timing (he is off a beat in every interaction)—it’s a very special performance. It matches Phillips vision- it’s big, bold, unsubtle and quite brilliant. His face is a canvas- large, long features– Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” painting in real life. De Niro is past his prime and Joaquin in the middle of his—but in their scenes together I found that it almost hurt the film how much Phoenix blows De Niro off the screen (and for the record I think De Niro is cinema’s greatest single actor of all-time). They are in two different films. I’m not ready to compare Phoenix’s work with Ledger’s but it’s a major achievement for Phoenix
Phillips’ achievement is tougher to reckon with. First off, the film is absolutely beautiful in a shadowy, dystopian nightmare sort of way. It is an inarguable achievement in mise-en-scene and production design from Phillips and Mark Friedberg—Friedberg worked on Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002), Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), Wes Anderson’s Life Aquatic (2004), Darjeeling Limited (2007) and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008)— really marvelous films in terms of production design and this film is on that level with its detail (the shot of Phoenix laying in the alley) with the graffiti garbage art visual motif. It’s designed.
Again – Phillips isn’t subtle—but art doesn’t have to be subtle and I’d love to ask any critic with that as a criteria (and uses that against this film) what they think of Kubrick or Scorsese- the two greatest American auteurs of all-time— and two big, bold, and definitely unsubtle filmmakers. Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (there’s a fair amount in common here with Joker) isn’t subtle. Subtlety is a choice, often a description- not a critique. Phillips is not on this level- don’t mistake my point- but art does not have to be understated- this is intentionally expressionistic (matching the larger than life Phoenix performance and achievement in production design).
We get a lot of late 1970’s early 1980’s colors—Arkham asylum’s yellow interior may be the most easy example to isolate and praise (that yellow also the preferred color of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver– clearing a driving influence on the film)
I don’t see how you could write a review on this film without discussing Scorsese, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. De Niro here is clearly a connecting factor and a deliberate casting choice. There are a dozen actors that would have been more suited for his role (and better—how about like Michael Shannon, Gyllenhaal or maybe Alec Baldwin or James Franco?) but he’s a casting homage. The problem is, unlike say Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck cast in Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear– here- De Niro’s role is too large to cast in The Joker out of homage. Other Scorseseisms’ are those mean streets of New York. There’s the porno theater in the background in the heart of NYC like Taxi Driver, we get Phoenix pointing a finger at his temple like Travis Bickle.
It definitely feels unburdened with being part of a larger comic universe.
Strong, hard grindhouse score by Hildur Guðnadóttir — many great original scores in 2019 but it is deserving of the Oscar win– it drops, with those heavy strings, when he’s beaten in the alley with the big bold titles– stunning
I’m not sold on the climax and conclusion of the film. I felt that Phoenix’s monologue (too much telling, not enough showing here) and appearance with De Niro was too on the nose- that the writing is stating the thesis (the “nobody is civil anymore” speech) and it isn’t needed (or connected to the rest of the film).
There are a pair of shots connected—the 1). shot of the young Bruce Wayne with his parents struck down and 2). the shot of a beaten Phoenix in the alley towards the beginning. These are both in overhead slanted angle shots. It is visually making the connection between the two through framing and shot design- really well done
Many shots of that detailed production design, the subways, alleys, the stairs… repetition and form
The Phillips as Scorsese (he even uses the old Warners logo used from 1972 to 1984 so the red one you see was used in say Mean Streets) discussion with other artists and art is fascinating and worth discussion. Is Phillips aping his style? Or is it a well-done (I think that’s inarguable) discourse or discussion with other art and artists? I mean Scorsese himself isn’t free of influence by any means and even Taxi Driver takes massive chunks of its film from Ford’s The Searchers and other works (say the Bresson influence of screenwriter Paul Schrader). It’s worth noting that Phillips has done this before with Scorsese- most notably in War Dogs and The Hangover (think of the driving across the desert in the glasses from Casino and the reverse POV shot of Ed Helms hungover like the “Rubber Biscuit” scene in Mean Streets
from the beginning the tone is set as I said with the Warners emblem and the state of emergency, rats, epidemic on the radio
multiple moments of surrealism– the Murray show as a guest, and then the relationship with Zazie Beetz
Again, Phoenix carries the load– an artistically transcendent performance- when hunched over his bones are almost protruding, bruised, jittery, rib cage exposed- think of Christian Bale in The Machinist but in a stronger film— maybe closer to Michael Fassbender in Hunger (and not as strong a film in this case)
he’s derailing, spiraling– in another alley shot he beats up a pile of trash, stairs repeated
I couldn’t find it here- but there is a jaw-dropper of a frame at the 82 minute mark after the murder of his mother– framed by the green curtains
I’m calling it a Highly Recommend film — top of the year quality film