Put on a happy face.
As a long-time DC comics fan, I didn’t know what to expect from this gritty R-rated take on the Joker, Batman’s iconic arch-nemesis, created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson back in 1940. For one, the film is written and directed by Todd Phillips — the guy who made, um, Old School (2003) and The Hangover (2009) — and isn’t connected to the DCEU, nor does it take cues from any pre-existing comic book storyline — filmmakers, however, have cited Alan Moore’s graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) as inspiration, as well as darker character studies such Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), and his 1982 movie The King of Comedy.
Although winning the Golden Lion for Best Film at this year’s Venice International Film Festival, where it premiered, this standalone Joker origin story has been somewhat divisive, met with extreme praise and great disdain — regular contributor Travis was left hugely let down, stamping the film as empty nihilism coasting on better previous work. Others, however, have dubbed it as ‘masterful,’ some even claiming it to be the ‘best movie of 2019.’ My take — well, I can see both sides of the glorified Jack card, even if I fall squarely into the latter. Frankly, Warner Bros./ DC should be commended for stepping out of their comfort zone and trying something daring and different — it’s a miracle this thing was made at all.
Slipping into the oversized shoes this time around is the super talented Joaquin Phoenix, Her (2013), whose Clown Prince of Crime, introduced as Arthur Fleck here, is a pathological laugher who genuinely wants to make people smile, hoping to bring joy to the world as a standup comedian. The problem is, he ain’t funny (like, not at all) and isn’t the right person to be delivering punchlines given that he’s, well, mentally unstable and kinda deranged. In the film’s opening frames we see Arthur stretch out the sides of his mouth into a false smile, an illusion of happiness that gets slowly ripped away until there’s nothing left and Arthur is forced to confront his own damaged nature — oddly enough, it’s a Garry Glitter song, ‘Rock and Roll, Pt 2,’ that he pieces himself back together to, a scene that sees DC’s Jester of Genocide (in full Joker gear and makeup) emerge for the very first time, dancing on a flight of drenched concrete steps. It’s a stellar moment, made even better by Phoenix’s tour de force act.
Comparisons will no doubt be made between Phoenix and the late Heath Ledger, whose rendering of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) earnt him an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role eleven odd years ago. Phoenix, however, does an astonishing job, stepping out of Ledger’s long-standing shadow and making the character his own, instilling humanity, pathos, and sorrow into the crazed villainous psychopath — and we can really sympathize with the guy, err, at first anyway. It’s a fearless, stunning portrayal with a breadth of emotional depth, Phoenix bringing vulnerability to the future terrorist mastermind — and that’s no easy feat.
Arthur, you see, starts out as a penniless rent-a-clown, a pitiful wannabe ‘joker’ who’s barely keeping it together, his twisted, sickly-thin physique and incessant cackling (cruelly slapped with a fictitious laughing disorder) making him more than a little unsettling — and this is before staining himself with the red, white and black greasepaint, and dyeing his hair emerald. There’s a scene at the end of the picture where Arthur, having just been introduced to the world as Joker, pours out his heart to a live audience of a television talk-show that’s both gut-wrenching and terrifying — and one of the best bits of cinema I’ve seen this year.
At its core this is a slow-burn story about one man’s grim, hopeless descent into madness and murder, Phoenix’s demented expose bolstered by a surprisingly layered, nuanced script whose multiple threads come together brilliantly. The screenplay, penned by Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver, 8 Mile (2002), honors what we know about character and ties nicely into DC comic book lore — it’s a vastly different universe to the DCEU for sure, but one I’d certainly love to revisit.
Set in 1981, we’re dropped into a crime-ridden, garbage-filled, rat-infested Gotham; it’s a place on the verge of mayhem and breakdown, the gap separating the wealthy and impoverished vast — and growing. It’s a city in need of a champion. This fictional metropolis, though, feels worryingly real, the hostile landscape mirroring our current fears and anxieties. Sure, the allegorical connections to modern-day politics and the social class divide may be a little too on the nose (Right-wing vs. Left/ bedlam vs. order) — all ambiguity is thrown out the window here — but these are, nonetheless, bold parallels. And there’s no shortage of social commentary either as Phillips endeavours to explore the sickness afflicting today’s world, namely the callousness we humans are all capable of displaying — to others and, by extension, ourselves.
The film really explodes in its gripping third act, where the troubled, tormented loner, broken by society, not only finds his identity but unintentionally becomes a symbol for the underclass, spearheading a vicious movement — looting mobs clad in clown masks terrorize the fearful city. But he’s a man-made monster (no thanks to the lack of mental health care services, which have all been cut — there seems to be something in here about the absence of funding and support for these people). Either way, it’s great seeing the maniacal Ace of Knaves evolve up on screen. Surprisingly, Phoenix’s Joker, though unforeseeable at first, transforms seamlessly into a warped iteration the classic character from my childhood, brought to life by Cesar Romero in the Adam West-starring television Batman (1966), albeit more sinister and disturbed.
Shot on the ARRI Alexa 65, Joker is exquisitely photographed by Lawrence Sher, Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), who catches some truly unforgettable imagery, presenting the city of Gotham (a stylized stand-in for NYC, obviously) as an authentic, real-life place — a scene at a gala screening of Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) makes excellent use of vintage cinema projection (Nat King Cole’s ‘Smile,’ composed by comedian Chaplin for said film, features prominently in Joker, too). There’s another standout moment, a shot from the inside of a banged-up vehicle, which captures the smoke-filled streets and pandemonium ensuing around it — unforgettable. Joker is further aided by the fabulous production design by Mark Friedberg, If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), who transports us from the decrepit, graffiti-coated streets of Gotham to the sheen and splendor of Wayne Manor, the contrast remarkable. But the real opus here is the thunderous score by Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018), this grand and haunting composition sure to be a big talking point come Oscar season. And the film’s musical cues hit all the right notes, too, both narratively and emotionally.
While Joaquin’s unnerving act alone is worth the price of a movie ticket, the supporting cast is uniformly strong. In her second comic book movie after 2018’s Deadpool 2, Zazie Beetz delivers a solid performance in her small role as Sophie Dumond, a single mother living in Arthur’s rundown apartment building whom he becomes dangerously infatuated with. Brett Cullen, The Dark Knight Rises (2012), portrays an unsympathetic Thomas Wayne, Bats’ billionaire philanthropist father, who’s running for mayor of Gotham, while Six Feet Under star (2001-05) Frances Conroy does wonders with the character of Penny, Arthur’s deteriorating mother. And, of course, screen legend Robert De Niro shines as flashy talk-show personality Murray Franklin, whom Fleck seeks validation from, the character having a large part to play in Arthur’s undoing and the inevitable rise of the face-painted sociopath. Side note: De Niro’s Franklin is a nice role-reversal on a character he played in Scorsese’s King of Comedy, a comedian, named Rupert Pupkin, obsessed with a talk-show host.
And yes, Joker pays homage to stark ’70s cinema, evoking the work of Scorsese in particular, but this film is so much more. It’s a complex character study surveying an unhinged, volatile man, at once a thematically ambitious crime drama and a modestly budgeted antihero flick. This is a fierce film, and Phillips doesn’t hold back; it’s bloody, brutal and relentlessly violent, an uncompromised, unrestrained vision that subverts expectations in the best ways imaginable; there’s a clever new twist on Batman (Dante Pereira-Olson plays young Bruce Wayne) and Joker’s history, too — I’d kill to see the pair square off, though I doubt it’ll ever happen.
Bleak, atmospheric, chilling and topical, Todd Phillips’ Joker is a true film for our times; whatever way one looks at it, this is a powerful piece of contemporary cinema, living up to the promise and hype. Like it or loath it, Joker is a film that’s sure to make its titular anarchist proud, this solo effort destined to cause chaos and controversy, even for just a short while, as it’ll no doubt be debated, discussed and dissected for months to come.
5 / 5 – Don’t Miss!
Reviewed by S-Littner