I have been looking forward to Joker for several months. Joaquin Phoenix is one of my favourite actors and has been since he played Johnny Cash in ‘Walk the Line’. But after Romero, Nicholson, Hamill and Ledger (we’ll ignore Leto), could Phoenix bring something new to the character? Yes. Would this movie live up to expectations? An even bigger yes.
Firstly, the film is set within a Gotham City of an unspecified period but somewhere in the 1980’s. This extends to a retro Warner Brothers logo which is a lovely detail. It is the period of ‘Taxi Driver’, ‘The King of Comedy’ and the seminal Batman graphic novel ‘The Killing Joke’, although in reality a period separated by more a decade. As with these key influences the setting is an amalgamation. The non-specific time frame also allows for commentary on our modern world.
Gotham is a city which is bubbling with social unrest. The elite, epitomised by Thomas Wayne, are safe within their bubble seemingly unaware of the hard times and suffering which the less fortunate people in Gotham are having to endure. News reports are inflaming the situation further with stories of giant rats feasting on the festering rubbish littering the streets due to a strike. Budget cuts are causing the removal of care services. Medications are no longer available for those who need them.
Joaquin is Joker
Simply put Joaquin Phoenix is astonishing. He dominates the film and is in every single scene. His descent into the more maniacal Joker that we are already familiar is a shocking and at times deeply distressing journey. Phoenix’s appearance as Arthur Fleck is merely a reflection of how he has been mistreated and abused mentally and emotionally as well as physically. Malnourished. Bruised and beaten. He works as a clown but even that is not without perils. In the evening he returns home to take care of his mother and, much like his job, is also a negative experience. Fleck is not a character that you have sympathy for, instead you just pity him.
Whilst watching the movie it is difficult not to want to see that eventual metamorphosis into Joker. That’s why we bought the cinema ticket. But at the same time you don’t really want it to come because, when it does, you realise it isn’t going to be pretty. Boy, is it not pretty!
The explanation of Arthur’s laughter being an involuntary response, seemingly occurring at times of stress, anger and nervousness, was a smart way of accounting for that particular trait of Joker. Medicalising it as the result of a brain injury or impairment was, in my opinion, reaching a bit. But it also balanced with his inability to understanding comedy. Arthur has a desire to be a standup comedian but laughs at the setup rather than punchline. His sense of humour is not obscure or dark, it just isn’t funny.
Directed by Todd Philips
Perhaps the only genuine criticism that I can level at this film is the lack of subtlety. This should be no real surprise as it comes from the director of the Hangover trilogy. The points being made are unquestionably clear. ‘Look what happens when you don’t treat people with mental health problems appropriately’. ‘This is what happens when the wealthy defecate on the poor’. ‘A lack of gun control and the accessibility of weapons can have dangerous consequences’. ‘The media portray the wealthy in glowing terms no matter what they do’. These themes are not painted with the dexterity of a paintbrush on canvas, more like a wrecking ball smashing into a wall. But the messages are clear and that has proved to be effective.
Joker won the Best Film award at the Venice Film Festival plus others and is expected to perform well when awards season hits. That is a credit not just to Phoenix’s sensational performance but to director Todd Philips who have collectively created something truly unique. It isn’t a comic book movie in the conventional sense. The whole thing also looks incredible. A period setting, brilliantly shot and with terrific cinematography by Lawrence Sher. If you can get to an IMAX screening then I would highly recommend it.
It is unquestionably a movie which has created controversy. Joker could quite easily be considered to be a dangerous film, capable of inciting violence in a way that ‘A Clockwork Orange’ was claimed to have influenced on its release. Much of the attention of the debate surrounds the violence which Joker instigates but that would be missing the point entirely. Fleck’s violent outbursts are as a result of the violence he himself has had to endure. Those moments are a reaction to something inflicted upon him but they become increasingly greater over-reactions. First, a physical assault. The second and third instances are based upon long-term abuse with the latter more implied and not entirely clear. Finally, a reaction to being made fun of. Instead of continuing to take the abuse Fleck lashes out in increasingly dramatic ways. Much like Gotham itself the bubbling anger and frustration boil over and the result is carnage and chaos.
That said the film could’ve been far more gratuitous in its violence. In the UK the film received only a 15 certificate so it could easily have gone further still and achieved an 18. The violence is shocking because it occurs unexpectedly. Yes the acts are inherently violent in themselves but in a lot of cases it will catch people off guard and that accentuates the shock. It is a movie full of tension but not a constant unease which elicits terror in the viewer. Uncomfortable to watch but not due to the content if taken in isolation.
Special mention has to be made to the score by Hildur Guðnadóttir which is a work of brilliance. Mournful sounds of cello strings accentuate the tension and contribute to an unforgettable experience. It is not for the faint of heart. Whilst I did not need to see yet another version of Thomas and Martha Wayne being murdered in front of a young Bruce, it felt like an appropriate ripple as Gotham caught fire. Joker becomes a hero. A symbol for a groundswell of social unrest. Let’s hope this particular element remains where it belongs, on screen and not in reality.
I would be surprised if Joaquin Phoenix does not get award nominations for this role. Whilst it is a difficult and at times harrowing film to watch Phoenix and Philips have delivered something truly exceptional.