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Director: Todd Phillips
Screenplay: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Review: RJ Bland
When you think of the most iconic villains of modern times, we as horror fans tend to think of characters like Freddy Kruger, Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees etc. However if you spread the net a little wider you have big guns like Darth Vader, Hans Gruber and Hans Landa (what's with the name Hans?!). Another one to add to the list is Batman's arch nemesis, The Joker. It's a role that has been played by several actors over the years but most famously, Jack Nicholson (Batman 1989) and Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight 2008). Both of those are universally accepted as being incredible portrayals of the the Clown Prince of Crime. It's a role that comes with a lot of pressure and there aren't too many actors that are equipped to take it on to be honest. Director Todd Phillips and the peeps at Warner Brothers decided that Joaquin Phoenix was the best man for the job for the latest imagining of Gotham's most famous psychopath. An interesting choice but from the trailers he certainly looked the part. But how did he – and the film – perform?
Arthur Fleck is a heavily medicated and troubled middle-aged man living at home with his sickly mother in early 80's Gotham. He can't hold down a regular job and earns a living dressed as a clown attending kids birthday parties and holding up SALE NOW ON signs outside shops. Arthur is a desperately unhappy man and feels the weight of the bleak, dog-eat-dog Gotham society on his shoulders. He's mocked, beaten up, abused and generally ignored. The one thing getting him through it all is his desire to be a stand up comedian and he idolises a TV show host/comedian called Murray Franklin (brilliantly played by Robert De Niro). However when he gets fired from his clown gig for taking a gun into the children's ward of a hospital and Murray Franklin publicly humiliates him on television, Arthur's grip on reality fades even further and he descends into a negative spiral of violence and madness.
Joker isn't an easy watch. In fact, at times, it's almost unwatchable. Director Todd Phillips (yes, the guy that made Old School!) wastes little time is establishing the mood and tone of the film by having Fleck savagely beaten by a bunch of hoodlums in an alleyway after they have nicked his street sign. Lots of bad things happen to this man and the further the film progresses, the more we learn of his backstory and the more tragic his tale becomes. It's impossible to watch Joker without feeling any semblance of empathy for this man, who will go on to become a murderous supervillain but that's one of the beautiful things about the film. All previous iterations have been polar when it comes to Batman and Joker, good and bad. But this film muddies the waters quite significantly because not only do you find yourself caring for (but not necessarily rooting for) Phoenix's disturbed character – Thomas Wayne, darling of the Batman story, is an arrogant schmuck. What Arthur Fleck becomes almost feels inevitable. The ingredients are all there for this character to exist and the end of the film feels like we're seeing a man answer his calling.
From a technical perspective, Joker is a huge success. Todd Phillips' )and cinematographer Lawrence Sher's) vision of Gotham is wonderfully grey and sparse. It's like a dystopian New York city. Joker is a dark film (quite literally) and very muted and the depiction of a tormented man being pushed over the edge is just perfect. Gruelling and painful at times, but it needs to be. I know that there is a pressure on Superhero/comic book movies to up the ante when it comes to this kind of thing but nothing that has come before really compares to this in terms of gritty psychological drama. The theme's that the intelligent script touches upon, most notably the division between the haves and have-nots, are as relevant today as ever and at a time when we are seeing mass protests over climate change and Brexit and racial issues, it feels as poignant as ever. At a time when mental health is no longer a taboo subject (thank god), it feels even more resonant. Some critics may claim that this film glorifies the idea of getting revenge on society for your own misfortune but in reality it's message is more about the effect that a hard world has on a fragile mind.
Of course, I haven't mentioned Joaquin Phoenix's yet but that's simply because it makes sense to leave the best to last. Phoenix has delivered some accomplished performances in his life. He's played cowardly despot (Gladiator), lonely bachelor (Her) traumatised hitman (You Were Never Really Here) and country music God (Walk the Line) but this is without a doubt, the best thing he has ever done. Ledger received rave reviews (and rightly so) for his version of the Joker but he played him as more of a calculated nihilist. Phoenix's Joker is a different beast. He's more real. Extremely vulnerable, mentally disturbed and completely chaotic. He's a reactive force rather than a proactive one. But it doesn't make him any less terrifying when he dons the iconic Joker garb in the last act of the film. Transformation complete, Phoenix looks like he was born to play this role. Before this he's simply electrifying too. The long, dark stares, the shrieking, the dancing, the hidden trauma – it's all there. Watching it you really believe you are watching a man descend into madness. It's a thing of rare beauty. His physical transformation is also startling too.
Joker will not appease everyone however. It's a tough two hours. Draining almost. Watching a man suffer at the hands of others and then turn into a monster is not a 'fun' experience. There are a couple of scenes of hard violence that may affect some too. However, none of this can be a surprise for anyone that knows what kind of film this is going to be.
Go in knowing that it's not going to be a Thor Ragnarok style romp and you'll be fine.
Joker is a truly excellent piece of film making and acts a compelling origin story for one of the greatest on screen villains. It's dark, disturbing and packs an emotional punch and most of that is down to a career best performance by Phoenix. Something of a masterpiece.
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