Joker plunges us into a bleak, despairing comic book world, largely thanks to the immersive and disturbing performance of star Joaquin Phoenix.
He plays Arthur Fleck, an aspiring stand-up comedian who is so beaten down by life in Gotham City that he eventually finds a new profile as a vigilante symbol. In his own words, "I thought my life was a tragedy... Now I realise, it's a comedy."
The dark irony and underlying sadness of Fleck's situation is captured by composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, who earlier this year won acclaim for her work on powerful TV series Chernobyl. The music for Joker is similarly bleak, albeit laced with a sense of compassion – one senses the composer's sympathy for the main character, sympathy that turns to horror as events turn increasingly violent.
Guðnadóttir has become only the second woman to score a theatrically released comic book movie – the first was Pinar Toprak for this year's Captain Marvel. Given the acclaim that's greeted the score, it's highly likely Guðnadóttir, along with Phoenix, will be a recipient of an Oscar nomination.
Get a better understanding of her work by listening to the following five tracks in isolation.
WARNING: JOKER SPOILERS AHEAD
1. 'Defeated Clown'
The Joker score is based around the theme for Arthur himself, primarily expressed via a heart-rending cello arrangement. It doesn't make for cheery listening, but there's no denying how effectively Guðnadóttir gets beneath the skin of Phoenix's portrayal.
It also heightens the irony of the film's central premise: here is a man desperate to make the world laugh, who is unable to do so. And of course, in the movie the power of laughter also has a destructive streak, courtesy of Fleck's neurological condition that causes him to cackle uncontrollably.
The morbid and depressing tone of Guðnadóttir's main theme makes this one of the most striking comic book scores in a long while. Introductory track 'Defeated Clown' underlines this very effectively.
2. 'Young Penny'
Amid the gloomy soundscape of the score, Guðnadóttir is smart enough to drop in occasional shades of light that add to our understanding of Fleck's character. One of the most important aspects of the narrative is the relationship he shares with his equally troubled mother, Penny (played by American Horror Story's Frances Conroy).
Again, the music is a cannily subjective experience, mirroring Arthur's tortured inability to express his emotions correctly. In this case, tender violins craft a symbiotic relationship between laughter and horror as his apparently sweet relationship with his mother is revealed to be anything but.
3. 'Bathroom Dance'
Film composers have a remarkable ability to give an inner voice to the most tormented of characters. Guðnadóttir does this superbly in Joker, especially in the pivotal bathroom breakdown scene – without music, this would be carried entirely on the physicality of Phoenix's performance, which is strong enough on its own.
However, the whole sequence gains added layers of emotion and meaning thanks to the music – the solemn tragedy of the cello theme anticipates Fleck's slide from sanity to madness, and the presence of a choir gives everything a horribly holy quality. Again, the use of voices places us in Fleck's head – in his mind, he sees himself as a tragic martyr figure, making this whole section of the movie an excellent fusion of direction, acting and music.
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4. 'Escape from the Train'
As Arthur comes to embrace his new Joker persona, he becomes a symbol for the dispossessed, clown mask-wearing masses of Gotham City. As his own personal demons find their reflection in society's wider collapse, the tone of Guðnadóttir's score widens to become far more turbulent and disturbing.
The cello theme again anchors us in Arthur's emotional arc, but increasingly it's joined by masses of processed electronics that angrily seethe and writhe. We get a sense, through the music, of an organic personality being overtaken and consumed by a mask of righteousness, which becomes especially apparent in the train chase as two detectives are effectively lynched while pursuing Arthur.
5. 'Call Me Joker'
Everything comes to a head in the score's climactic cue. This is where Guðnadóttir finds resolution in her central cello theme, and allows the various electronic effects to reach ecstatic pitch as Arthur finally bids farewell to his sanity.
The track wonderfully encapsulates all the contradictions inherent in Phoenix's performance – it's both human and inhuman, tragic yet monstrous, and undertaken with utmost seriousness. Can you sense an Oscar nomination?