Thursday, November 21, 2019
Joker: A Review
Some films I can admire, respect, even think highly of, without actually loving. Joker is such a film. It was met with controversy long before its release, with fears of mass chaos, mayhem, even murder/murders breaking out during or after debut screenings. Now, removing all the speculation Joker caused about potential violence perhaps now we can see the film itself. Joker is a dark but brilliant film, an exploration of the dark world and the man who shifted into a monster.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) dreams of being a stand-up comedian in Gotham City like his idol, late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), but for now has to earn a living as a clown for hire. Living with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), Arthur has a history of mental illness and a rare disorder that has him break out in laughter at moments of stress.
Things are financially dicey at the Fleck home, and not even a new girlfriend, neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) help. Gotham is a decaying city, one full of random crime and cruel people. Arthur's hold on his own sanity comes undone after he's fired for bringing a gun to a children's hospital while entertaining as a clown. Confronted by three yuppies on the subway, Arthur kills them: two in self-defense but the last in cold blood.
This is the first trigger to release him from what little bonds of morality he had, and inadvertently makes him a folk hero to the dispossessed in Gotham with reports of a 'clown vigilante'. Penny, whose own mental health is dubious, now suggests that Arthur is the illegitimate son of billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), for whom she worked for decades ago and who is now running for Mayor.
Whether Arthur is or is not Thomas' bastard son is pretty much doubtful, but an encounter with Wayne goes nowhere. Arthur's grasp is totally undone; his relationship with Sophie is a fantasy he created. His troubled childhood coming back to haunt him. His efforts at stand-up comedy not only bombed but videotape is aired to an amused Live! with Murray Franklin audience.
All this, along with police closing in on Arthur as the prime suspect in the subway shootings, culminates into a horror show of blood, chaos and murder. Arthur had agreed to be a guest on Franklin's television show after his failed routine achieved popularity. Now dubbing himself as 'Joker', the end result is horrifying, with a side effect of the chaos being the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne, leaving a young Bruce Wayne alone in an alley and 'Joker' at Arkham Asylum.
In the ten-plus years of reviewing films, Joker is the first one where I left trembling after what I saw, a mixture of shock and horror blended with a respect as to how well the film worked. Joker is a film that works outside of any larger universe, where the origins of the future Batman or indeed the whole of Batman mythos is almost incidental. Stripped of its trappings/origins in comic books Joker could be a true origins and original story. In short, it doesn't need to be tied into anything and could be seen as a movie distinct and separate from a DC franchise.
Drawing heavily from MCU fanboys' nemesis Martin Scorsese's films Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, Joker takes its time guiding us both through the dour, depressed and oppressive world of Gotham and Arthur's broken mind. Over and over we see how Arthur's world so shaped him to become the monster he became. We see how abused he was right from the beginning, and Joker brilliantly shows us how he was metaphorically and literally assaulted by poor and rich alike (one assault echoes another).
Never were Send in the Clowns and That's Life so creepy.
This is a believable world, a dark world, a cruel world with not just little to no hope but one that pushes people like Arthur into their awful and tragic end. The more frightening element is that there is some sympathy for this devil. After committing a brutal murder of one of his former coworkers, he lets the other leave unharmed, telling him somewhat sadly that he is the only one who showed him kindness.
One sense that in Joker, both the absence of a father and the accidental and deliberate cruelties inflicted on Arthur brought about wider desolation. They may not be literal brothers, but now Arthur Fleck and Bruce Wayne share the coincidence of being parentless.
Joaquin Phoenix's performance is one of utter astonishment. He has a soft voice for most of Joker, and we see in his performance that of a man falling apart but making some steps to hold on to some kind of world. We see a haunted man, a tormented one, an uneducated and tragic figure (a journal entry reads "I just hope my death makes more cents than my life", clearly unaware that he used the wrong word for 'sense'). Joker has us if perhaps not sympathize with at least see how put-upon he is: from the disinterest of social workers to the physical abuse of random strangers to the hurtful words of Penny. When describing his dreams of stand-up comedy, she replies "Don't you have to be funny to be a comedian?"
Phoenix's Arthur-to-Joker transformation is slow, methodical, frightening and mesmerizing. It really is his best work and a fierce rival to if not triumph over Heath Ledger's take on the character, an exceptionally high bar to reach.
The film has a massive dose of exceptional performances, from Beetz's gentle to ultimately frightened Sophie to Conroy's delusional Penny and Cullen's dismissive Thomas Wayne. While his role is small, Robert De Niro's cocky to gruesomely ended Murray Franklin too is excellent. It is clear that De Niro's appearance is a call-back to his Travis Bickle/Rupert Pupkin.
Joker also has exceptional technical work from Jeff Groth's editing to Hildur Goadnadottir's score. A sequence where Arthur rehearses his Live! with Murray Franklin appearance timed to a potential live suicide is brilliantly timed. Hildur's score brilliantly captures the sadness and hollowness of both Arthur and his world.
Having praised Joker as an exceptional film (which I think it is), I also was deeply troubled and disturbed by it. It takes a lot to rattle me and I don't scare easy: I laughed at The Exorcist. However, Joker alarmed me and as I said, I left the theater trembling in shock at what I had witnessed.
My moral compass is not so broken as to almost revel in these gruesome hijinks or to enjoy the violence and uprisings the clowns were partaking in. When Arthur 'punches out' for the last time, an audience member shouted, "That was awesome". I didn't see it as 'awesome', I saw it as troubling and a descent into nightmare.
Joker is a brilliant film, exceptionally well-crafted with an astonishing lead performance by Joaquin Phoenix. However, just like its role model Taxi Driver, Joker is a film I can easy call 'brilliant'...but may never wish to see again.