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Obviously, Joker is one of my most anticipated movies of 2019. I mean, how couldn't it be?! Besides belonging to the superhero genre, DC has been on a streak of great films within its universe, so an isolated installment definitely excites me, especially about one of the evilest villains ever. It's by far one of the less comic-book-y flicks of the century. It doesn't follow the generic origin story formula, it avoids any cliches associated with the genre, and it's the type of movie that's becoming more and more rare nowadays. It's a character study like we haven't seen in a long time.
I'll simply begin with the person that elevates the entire thing: Joaquin Phoenix. Now, if there's something I'm not going to do is compare his performance with Heath Ledger's. That's the number one mistake people are going to keep making forever. First of all, The Dark Knight and Joker couldn't be more distinct films, even if they belong to the same genre (despite Joker being unique, it's still about a famous comic-book villain). Then, despite Phoenix and Ledger portraying the same "version" of the clown (crazy, sadistic psychopath), the former is 90% Arthur Fleck while the latter is 100% Joker, throughout each of their movies. Finally, Phoenix is the sole protagonist of this feature, while Ledger had the best live-action Batman sharing the spotlight.
In conclusion, it's both unfair, and a bit unreasonable to compare both interpretations since their roles have a different impact on the narrative, as well as each film being entirely different. In the end, both are impressive. However, let's switch to Phoenix since he's the star of this show … He has 2019's best performance, by far! With a strong marketing campaign, I'm sure he'll get that Oscar. I hope so! It's so well-deserved. Todd Phillips and Scott Silver developed a brilliant screenplay, but Phoenix elevates it to a whole other level.
Throughout the entire runtime, I felt weird. Perturbed. Even uncomfortable with what I was watching and consequently feeling. It's a dark, brutal, violent, emotionally powerful origin of a villain who I feel disturbingly empathetic towards. Phoenix makes the story work due to its remarkably captivating display of someone who's mentally ill. Arthur Fleck slowly becoming crazier is due to how society behaves and not due to some chemical pool that transforms his skin white and hair green (nothing wrong with this, but I know which origin story I prefer). "The world is getting crazier out there", and it becomes excruciatingly painful to deal with it, especially when so much is going on with Arthur’s personal life, and most of it he doesn't even realize because he tries to hide everything behind a smile.
It's a screenplay filled with narrative twists that not only pack a punch of surprise but leave you feeling extremely upset. The last act is one of the best in the last few years. If the second act is an enormous build-up, the last one is a terrific payoff. I can't remember the last movie I saw where I loved 100% every single narrative decision. I wouldn't do any of the big moments differently. There are so many excellent references hidden in plain sight that comic-book fans (and fans of the TDK trilogy as well) will love just like I did. In the ending, there's one pivotal moment in particular that serves as the absolute climax … I got chills all over my body. They couldn't have done that scene more perfect. I only have one tiny nitpick with the way some scenes feel repetitive since they neither move the plot forward or give us anything new. Some of these still help to create tension, some feel like they're just… there.
A Best Picture and Best Actor nominations seem to be on its way, but these are not the only achievements that deserve to be recognized. The original score by Hildur Guðnadóttir is incredibly addictive, so much that I'm listening to it while writing this review. It definitely helps to generate tremendous build-up, and it elevates the sinister environment of Gotham City. Lawrence Sher's cinematography is utterly stunning. The underexposure of some scenes is glorious. Sher paints the screen with so many gorgeous shots, especially with his close-ups on Phoenix, where the latter is able to shine. Jeff Groth is also impeccable in the editing room. There are several long takes with Phoenix just giving his all and letting all his emotions out (or keeping them all contained), which is always something I deeply appreciate since it helps with the flow of the narrative.
Regarding the film's controversy surrounding its messages and the incentive to violence, I really don't know what to say. It's ridiculous. I remember those times when going into the movie theater was a surreal experience. It was the number one place for people to forget about their lives, jobs, everything. Joker is a fictional story! It's the origin of one of the worst psychopaths in the history of comic-books and cinema. If people expected to leave the theater "happy" or "joyful", then at least one of the film's message is right: society really is getting crazier. Have people forgotten who Joker is? What could you possibly expect from his origin story?!
Nowadays, no one knows how to behave (social media is the primary source for spreading hate). No one respects the fellow citizen or even the world itself. More and more people only look at their own bellies. Political agendas are everywhere. New extreme movements are created every other year. Social hypersensibility is exponentially growing. The same way some people will hate this movie for not being able (or simply not wanting) to accept that they feel empathy towards a murderer, people all around the world behave like their actions don't reflect on another person's life and on their own planet. If people get ruthlessly violent because they watched Joker, how can someone complain that the film's message is bad when it's eventually true?
All in all, Joker is one of the best movies of the year, and it's definitely on my Top3 at the date of this review. Joaquin Phoenix delivers my favorite male performance of 2019, by elevating a script about the origin of one of the evilest villains ever. The way he gradually becomes more insane is worthy of study, but it's how he's able to make the audience create empathy towards a psychopath that leaves me disturbingly captivated. Todd Phillips produces a character-study filled with an astonishingly tense build-up and one of the most chill-inducing payoffs of the last few years. With every single narrative decision nailed perfectly, Hildur Guðnadóttir's score and Lawrence Sher's cinematography stand out. The lack of restraint in showing the unmerciful violence (physical and mental) that society inflicts on one another is what makes us feel unsettled. Because we know it's mostly true, and we refuse to accept it. It's not a film about the Joker. It's a very realistic portrayal of someone (anyone!) who can become someone like him. And it's disturbingly brilliant!
PS: Robert DeNiro (Murray Franklin) and Zazie Beetz (Sophie Dumond) are also great. Phoenix's performance is so mesmerizing that I almost forgot there were other actors in the movie.