Joker: An unsettling tale of a vulnerable villain

The latest depiction of Batman's foe relieves a world suffering from superhero fatigue.

Joaquin Phoenix won a Golden Globe for his work in JokerJoaquin Phoenix won a Golden Globe for his work in Joker (Source: Warner Bros.)

Think of the last time you were the only one who laughed at something; it may have been at the movies, during a get together with your friends or perhaps you made a joke that didn’t land the way you intended. If you feel anything like me, it was an uncomfortable situation for all parties involved. There is, in a brief moment, a feeling of isolation and awkwardness, which is why having someone in your life who laughs at the same things you do, no matter how odd or silly, someone who shares your sense of humor, feels like such a blessing.

An unsettling drama

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Todd Phillips, the writer and director of Joker, has previously written and directed movies that didn’t share any of the most distinguishable elements of his latest piece of work. Among his credits you can find the comedy classic Old School, the hugely successful Hangover (and its two unfortunate sequels) and most recently, the slightly darker in tone War Dogs. If it weren’t for his past credits, it would be hard to believe that the director of those absurd comedies is the same director of this very serious psychological thriller, which I would categorize as a drama.

However, it makes perfect sense that someone with a developed sense of comedic writing and a keen eye for the performances required for that kind of material would be responsible for directing some of the most unsettling scenes you could find in a major release in 2019, especially a movie with the level of anticipation this one had. The feeling I tried to describe earlier is present in several scenes, in which we realize through laughter just how isolated and ostracised the main character is. It gives us a chance to feel a strange kind of empathy towards a man who is desperate for acceptance and something that at least resembles an emotional connection.

Nod to previous Joker

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Joaquin Phoenix delivers a performance that has people squirming in their seats, a powerful portrayal of a delusional man filled with frustration, disillusion and sad bitterness. At this point and given our relation with previous incarnations of the Joker, one of the most challenging aspects of the performance must have been creating something that is unique and not immediately recognizable: something that the audience wouldn’t associate with Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger or Mark Hamill (with his amazing vocal performance in the Batman animated series). Phoenix is able to do just that, creating something that is entirely his own; he embodies a more fragile character, physically and otherwise. The movie doesn’t overlook the past however, as it pays homage to Ledger (and Christopher Nolan) with the shot of the Joker riding in the back seat of a police car, which I thought was a direct reference to The Dark Knight and a very classy thing to do.

There are more aspects of the movie that help us understand what the character is going through and the society that he lives in. The fictional city of Gotham has constantly been associated with New York City, even though it is technically in New Jersey according to the DC Universe tradition. Since the movie is set in 1981, the set design has an important role in the film, showing a city that is struggling with crime, inequality and a general sense of despair; a large part of the population lacks opportunities, which, again, ties into some of the problems New York had at the time.

More than a franchise

There is also a griminess to the cinematography, since this is not the cosmopolitan Gotham we’ve seen in other movies but rather a collection of worn down places where no one seems to be at home. To tie it all together, the score provides a sense of eeriness with its constant use of strings with ominous tones, not to mention the use of several Frank Sinatra songs that fit very well with the theme of the movie: someone who feels misunderstood and at the same time keeps reassuring himself that things will get better, even though there are no obvious signs that point in that direction. I felt it all combined to create an uncomfortable but gripping experience.

I’ll be the first one to admit that I’ve experienced fatigue with the amount superhero movies, series and content related to both the Marvel and DC universes, and I avoid a lot of it. But it’s also been the success of these franchises that’s created a climate in which, from time to time, studios take a chance and let filmmakers create serious and interesting movies such as Joker; as long as we keep getting works of this quality, I’m all for it.

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