Todd Phillips, writer and director of comedy classics such as Old School and The Hangover Trilogy. has long been known for his comedic efforts. However, in 2019 Phillips – along with the incomparable force that is Joaquin Phoenix – took a very dark turn with his latest project, Joker. The critically acclaimed tour de force of acting, film direction and film score has proven to be one of the most critically acclaimed cinematic highlights of 2019. It’s already generating Best Actor Oscar buzz for Joaquin Phoenix as well as Best Picture for producers Todd Phillips, Bradley Cooper and Emma Tillinger Koskoff.
This is not a review. Instead, this article will analyse why Joker is a cinematic masterpiece. To do this three core components of film making will be looked at and I will tell you why Joker not only gets these core components right, but reinvents these them, and reinvigorates the psychological thriller genre:
The first component is acting. Good acting can save any film that suffers from poor direction or a poor script. Joaquin Phoenix, however, was not given the unfortunate task of creating something from nothing as Todd Phillips’ direction and writing was near perfect and enabled Phoenix to craft his version of the Joker. Phoenix is undoubtedly one of the most prolific actors of his generation and has released a body of work that is unmatched by his peers. With Joker, Phoenix adds to his list of acting accomplishments and created a version of a well known and greatly loved character; he almost effortlessly established a post-modern version of the Joker: one which audiences can finally relate to.
Phoenix did not try to make his iteration a gimmick or even resemble previous portrayals of the Joker. Instead, he used real-life source material in the form of watching countless videos of people with the disease pathological laughter. This inspiration of a real-life mental illness as the basis of his character gave Phoenix a sense of raw emotion and instability. Previous Jokers were just crazy for the sake of being crazy. They had a goal, whether it was money, power or even total chaos. But not Phoenix’s Joker.
The Joker Phoenix created through his own sheer talent and willingness to study actual mental illnesses saw a unique and realistic portrayal of a human being who was not valued and constantly belittled because of his mental illness and basically pushed aside because of his position within society. His blood-curdling laugh, demonic stare, childlike way of speaking and episodes of psychosis, Phoenix truly created a Joker who wasn’t scary but highlighted the limits we have and what we are capable off if we are pushed beyond those limits.
Direction is the second component. Todd Phillips was never known for his outstanding work as a director. His films such as Hangover and Old School were renowned mostly for their well-known comedic casts which generally stole the show. However, with Joker the direction of Phillips enters a realm of its own. Todd Phillips perfectly executes a quite confronting close up in the opening scene to introduce the Joker. The scene sees Arthur Fleck, aka Joker, forcing a smile by placing his fingers in his mouth. The use of the close-up frame is almost uncomfortable. With the scene progressing you can see how Phillips is cleverly utilising the human face and letting viewers know that the human face is not the catalyst for emotion. Simply put, someone smiling doesn’t mean that they are happy.
Phillips almost always uses a wide tracking shot when showing the Joker walking in the busy city. The use of this technique is perfect because no matter how wide the shot is, the audience will always be able to spot the central character during his scenes as Arthur, or post-transition into Joker. This is simply because his demeanour shown in the way he walks and runs is so unique to his character.
Todd Phillips has placed himself in the pantheon of great directors with Joker. This is achieved via his use of camera techniques and ability to perfectly visualise the slow downturn of an individual who has been shoved aside by society due to its lack of compassion toward people with mental illness.
Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score was undoubtedly a highlight. The film as a whole brought me to tears due to the acting of Phoenix but mostly due to the score. A score is basically a script for music. The score tells a story and Hildur not only told her story effortlessly through the use of eerie drums and violins but also painted a sonic picture for the audience.
One of the most powerful moments is the bathroom scene where Arthur makes his first transition into the Joker following a horrific crime on the subway. The score by Hildur is so heartbreaking and the fluid dance movements by Phoenix are almost trance-like. The score in Joker is undoubtedly an unspoken language and has the power to convey emotion more so than any other movie I have ever seen. Bravo Hildur. Bravo.
Joker is a masterpiece. No reviewer, no family member, no friend can tell me any different. Joker is a cinematic feat like no other and highlights what art can be if artists are given the freedom to do what they want. Movies are undoubtedly a business where financial gain is paramount. However, when those involved have a love for their craft, such as Joaquin Phoenix’s love for acting and Todd Phillips’ love for film making. It is then – and only then – that you get an instant classic like Joker.
Featured image via IMDB