Joker Review - The clown prince of crime puts on a happy face in this riveting, unsettling and award-worthy origin flick
It says a lot about cinema today that an opening montage featuring a man putting on a face-full of clown makeup before smiling forcefully at himself in a mirror, could very well be the most captivating silver screen moment of the year. There’s nothing flashy about the audience’s introduction to Joker (2019). There’s no explosions or gunfire. No well-timed comedic notes to hit. Just a painful, slow-burn look at humanity. One that’s perfect in its simplicity. Ironic really, given that one of the industry’s top directors, Martin Scorsese, used the same week as the DC origin flick’s release, to come out and trash films within the genre, claiming they aren’t “the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences.” Ironic, because that’s exactly what Todd Phillips’ first foray into this world is – a gripping, complex and highly affecting look at how we are all just one bad day away from becoming someone we never thought we could be.
Designed as a standalone piece within the extended Warner Bros. superhero universe, Joker (2019) follows the story of Arthur Fleck, a rent-a-clown performer who spends his days dancing with signs outside rundown businesses or trying to bring laughter to sick children at the local hospital. It’s a dreary world he lives in, stuck in a city that’s crumbling around the lower classes, while the rich get richer on their false promises and giant rats roam the streets as literal incarnations of such hypocrisy. His social life isn’t much better either, seen as little more than a loner that still lives with his mother, and hindered by a condition that sees him burst out in uncontrollable laughter at the most inappropriate of times. Having always been told he was put on this earth to make others smile, Arthur is eager to try his hand at stand-up comedy, but after a series of unfortunate events sees him lose his job, his dignity and even his morality, seemingly small fractures begin to open up into giant chasms, and the devastating effects of society’s inability to care, make him into a symbol he never intended to become.
Captivating and uncomfortable, as it should be, Joker (2019) asks us to question not what it takes to become a madman, but how such characters can so easily slip through the cracks when society lets down its most vulnerable. See, there’s a fine line between making an audience feel sympathetic towards a character and calling them a hero, and you’re never uncertain with Joker (2019). Arthur is not someone to applaud or admire; his violent, bloody actions launch us back to reality just as we begin to feel sorry for him. One can understand and even feel regretful towards his situation, but never at the decisions he makes in response. There’s been a lot of critical opinions on whether a film centred on the actions of, what one could clearly argue is an incel, will insight others. But then again, any piece of art, news, or propaganda could do the same. And what Joker (2019) teaches us, more importantly, is that we must come at things from a personal level, not just an institutional one. Mental illness is prevalent in society and needs to be addressed better, but mental illness alone does not drive people to commit horrible acts. Stopping people from feeling shut-out, abandoned and ignored is just as crucial.
Phoenix’s performance here is perhaps the best of his career, which is no hard feat considering his turns in Walk The Line (2005), The Master (2012) and Her (2013). Nothing feels stale or re-used from other incarnations of the character, and while it would be unfair to compare his version with that of the late, great, Heath Ledger’s, there’s no denying the Aussie would have been proud. His laugh is at once both menacing and maniacal, as well as so very pained. And as Arthur begins to garner acknowledgement from those around him, stepping out from the shadows, there’s a glorious transformation in the energy and charisma Phoenix imbues. In saying that, he certainly has a stellar supporting cast to bring out his best, with Robert De Niro going toe-to-toe with him as smarmy, talk-show host Murray Franklin, and Frances Conroy shining as Penny Fleck in the small moments she shares with her son. At the end of the day though, it’s Phoenix’s movie, and like his namesake he rises from the ashes, from the first haunting scene, to the burning, soft glow of the last. If he doesn’t take home the Oscar, or at least a nomination, then Hollywood needs to have a long, hard look at itself.
Visually, the film is just as strong. With a relatively low budget (less than $55 million, including advertising), Phillips relies heavily on the physical, leaving the CGI to the superheroes. Warm, rich tones roll across the screen, lulling the audience into Arthur’s world. And don’t be fooled – it’s all about his vision of things – the colours popping more vibrantly as he comes to find his, albeit destructive, place in it. The costumes paint a similar picture too; the sharp, angular blue triangles around the anti-hero’s eyes setting the scene more than any clown before. There’s a style and flair to the character from his outfit, something the DC villain has always had. And it flows from the physical to the political aspects of film - this version so strikingly real that it’s easy to forget you’re watching fiction. Not a single decision has been taken lightly here, from tone to lighting, score to nuance, and it really shows. So rare is it that we are gifted a movie that is as beautiful as it is disturbing and gritty.
Leaving the theatre, it’s hard not to have more questions than answers when it comes to Joker (2019). But for once, that seems to be a good thing. Contrary to what we would like to believe, bad people aren’t born that way. Villains are made. And sometimes, that means their creation can also be prevented. I mean, how many times has society heard from people who have said they “haven’t been happy one minute of their entire fucking life”. Or arrogant assholes that claim: “those of us who have made something of our lives will always look at those who haven’t and see nothing but clowns.” So where does the buck stop? When do we decide to listen and act, rather than ignore? Because just like the titular character’s derided joke, by the time the film gets to its punchline, nobody is laughing. Instead, a nervous tickle begins to rise at the back of our collective throats as we begin to realise, sometimes, we are all part of the problem.
Rating: 4.5 Joker Cards out of 5
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