WARNER BROS. PICTURES (2019)
Director: Todd Phillips
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy
Let the laughter commence.
Amidst an equal wave of praise and controversy, Todd Phillips' Joker arrived with heightened expectations. The winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival 2019, the movie came with a prestigious title around its waist but also carried a dark burden on its shoulders – the looming threat of gun violence from certain factions who could be inspired by the movie’s events. With the critics and the FBI in tow, the real question is – was Joker really the masterpiece that the world would seemingly have you believe?
It’s not the masterpiece, but it’s still very, very good. Phillips delivers an origin story for the Clown Prince of Crime that’s bereft of any vats of skin/hair bleaching acid (thank god) and instead presents Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck as a failed comedian and a man riddled with mental and neurological issues living in a Gotham City that’s teeming with crime, poverty and little time for those beneath the bread line – a world that consumes Arthur into eventually taking on the famous, titular mantle. In terms of comic book movies, it’s the least ‘comic book movie’ feeling effort I think I’ve seen – this is more a hard-hitting, psychological thriller that deals with supposed real-life issues and spares no punches or softens any blows than the colourful, CGI-stuffed affairs of the past decade. The tone is dark and disturbing and visually, the movie is no different – there’s a grimy filter that assaults every scene and the dark shadows permeate the narrative wonderfully. The early-1980s setting goes some way to aiding the overall atmosphere of Joker, but it’s Phoenix’s hurricane performance that steals the show. Phillips runs the risk of portraying Fleck as the victim here and presenting us with a sympathetic anti-hero, and despite assurances to the contrary, it’s hard to agree with Phillips’ assessment – Fleck is made out to be a victim of a society that didn’t listen or take him seriously. This may have been the idea in terms of getting the character from A to B, but in terms of the character's actions, Joker is never someone we should be rooting for. As for Phoenix, he is equal parts menacing, vulnerable, evil and scheming, it’s a juggernaut showing from a magnificent performer. It would be pointless to compare Phoenix to Ledger, Nicholson etc as this is a vastly different representation. He is, however, far better than Jared Leto’s – this Joker didn’t require the word ‘damaged’ to be tattooed on his forehead. De Niro is just fine as the face of Gotham’s media, talk show host Murray Franklin, whereas Zazie Beetz doesn’t really have an awful lot to do, sadly.
As a story, Joker is light – it borrows heavily from Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, both Scorsese movies (Scorsese was originally attached to produce this movie) but lacking the overall style of both – and the attempt at real-world social commentary is half-baked. Phillips attempts to tackle mental illness, poverty, class systems and the role of the media and society in ‘creating’ the murderers and bad people in the world, however, there’s no real depth to these or a solid idea of where to run with each of them. They’re very much dealt with on the surface level. It’s Scorsese-lite. That’s not to say that none of these work because they do (just not as heavily as Phillips intended), there’s a real unnerving atmosphere that hangs over the movie, one that builds as hauntingly as Hildur Guðnadóttir's majestically creepy score does, and there are moments that will stop you in your tracks – especially as Fleck spirals into his alter-ego. What effects the movie, however, is the need to tie in the Wayne family – this just felt shoehorned in and took away from some of the Joker’s story, instead becoming a pseudo-Batman origin story too…and, of course, we really don’t need to see that done again. Some of the writing in the movie's big finale was weak but the crescendo was marvelously chaotic.
Given the praise and controversy the movie received, Joker stands up to most of this and emerges to be a very good movie. Though it aims for Scorsese and falls short, it’s still a heavy portrayal of a man’s decline into madness and murder, all set to dirtily good cinematography and a cello-led nightmare score. It’s hard-hitting, affecting and, in places, magnificent. Whilst the movie lacks depth somewhat, it’s undeniably haunting and unnerving – Phoenix is monstrously good in the titular role. It’s no laughing matter.
October 6th 2019