Joker

Posted: October 15, 2019 in Film reviews
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Directed by Todd Phillips. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro and Frances Conroy.

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Gotham City in the 1980s is a destitute place. There is large scale unemployment and a garbagemen strike sees trash piling up everywhere. Crime is rife. Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is an aspiring comedian who makes a living as a party clown. His outfit often marks him out as a target for thugs, as does a condition that cause him to involuntarily laugh at inappropriate moments. He lives with his mother Penny (Conroy) and is attracted to his neighbour Sophie (Zazie Beetz.) Arthur has mental health issues and relies on social services for medication.

Constantly harassed, and with funding taken away from the support he relies on, Arthur becomes more and more disconnected from society. His stand-up routine flops, and when he’s mocked by his idol, talk show host Murray Franklin (De Niro) he becomes increasingly estranged from reality.

How much degradation can one man take before he breaks, and what does it take to turn a mild-mannered man into Batman’s arch nemesis, the clown prince of crime himself. Joker?

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So here we are. Joker arrives, riding waves of adoration and controversy. A film that at once is lauded for a sensitive portrayal of mental health, yet derided as reinforcing stereotypes about people with mental health problems being a danger. A film supposedly a beacon for incels, to the point where some theatres in America took precautions lest someone try to emulate the mass shooter who targeted a Dark Knight showing.

To be honest much of the chatter has magnified certain elements of the film, but whilst dark, extremely dark, at times, this isn’t a film that’s anywhere near as hollow and nasty as something like Rambo. Joker has something to say, and even though you might not like what that is, you can’t deny its importance.

Beyond anything else however, Joker is an exceptionally fine piece of filmmaking, and you have to admire the chutzpah of making an R rated Joker film that riffs on Martin Scorsese films. I’ve read several interviews with Todd Phillips, and he rarely comes across well, but you have to give the guy kudos for a fantastic exercise in direction. Gotham is a dark, twisted and yet utterly grounded city, and whilst personally I’d always lean towards a slightly more gothic Gotham (somewhere between the Burton movies and the Gotham tv series) you can’t fault that the city is a character in itself. Ostensibly it’s New York in the 70s and 80s with the serial numbers filed off, but it feels real, a visceral nightmare of a city, the perfect breeding ground for a chaotic villain like Joker.

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However good the script is, however good the direction is, the true reason for its success is Phoenix who is simply mesmerising. Arthur’s fear, anger and frustration are etched into the actor’s features, he makes us empathise with a man we might not always like, and the transition from meek and mild, to bloodthirsty confidence is utterly convincing. Phoenix lost a lot of weight for the part, leaving Arthur Fleck sinewy, almost skeletal, which is perfect for the character. I’m still surprised, and slightly disturbed, that Phoenix clearly took some inspiration from Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, and often Arthur dances naked, admiring his form in the mirror, clearly trying to understand his own nature. It’s not a connection I would have thought of, but it works perfectly here, and manages to make Phoenix’s Joker very different from all the other screen incarnations we’ve seen. This isn’t a broad take ala Romero or Nicholson, and it isn’t the slithering, reptilian Joker of Ledger either. And thank goodness it isn’t the preposterously over done gangster Joker that Jared Leto foisted on us.

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Is he the best incarnation of the Joker? That’s up for debate, but he’s the perfect Joker for this film. And I think it needs to be stressed, it isn’t that Joker is a phenomenal comic book movie. First and foremost, it’s a phenomenal movie in its own right, and I hope both the film and its star get Oscar nods.

The cast is sparse, but American Horror story’s Conroy is superb as Arthur’s mum, and their relationship is uncomfortable without ever crossing the line into icky, and De Niro is in good form as a smarmy talk show host, reinforcing those Scorsese links if you hadn’t already noticed.

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There are a few elements I’m not completely sold on. I don’t like turning Thomas Wayne into a blustering blowhard, and whilst Arthur is never really portrayed as a hero, at times he veers a little too close to antihero, which the Joker really shouldn’t be. These are minor quibbles though, in what is a fantastic piece of cinema with something to say about mental health, inequality, austerity and society in general.

And there is one element I particularly love (feel free to skip this as it’s slightly spoilery) and that is the set of steps that features heavily. For much of the film we see Arthur doggedly trudging up hill, a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders struggling with society’s expectations. Later on, when he’s become Joker, he gleefully dances down those very steps, a literal descent into madness, but he’s confident now, breezy even, because he’s finally happy with who he is. That was the moment I realised just how good this film was.

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I can see how it won’t be for everyone, and if your idea of the Joker is Caesar Romero prepare for one hell of a shock, but this is top notch filmmaking on every level, with a standout performance from perhaps one of the finest actors currently working in Hollywood.

Man, if you’d told me two of my favourite films this year would have come out of DC I really wouldn’t have believed you! (the other being Shazam!)

Highly recommended.

 

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