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Joker (Joaquin Phoenix) - Review

Joker

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 5 out of 5

TODD Phillips delivers another hangover of a movie in Joker, albeit one where the laughs are few and far between and the messages fly thick, fast and in grim, disturbing fashion.

Much less a comic book movie and more a sly, insightful piece of social commentary, this pulls off an incredibly neat trick by framing a cautionary tale about mental health within the single most watched film genre of the moment.

That’s not to say that it turns its back on the universe in which it exists, feeding into Batman folklore in masterful fashion. But in a move worthy of the Joker’s own ability to toy with people’s psychology, this film confronts difficult subject matter, challenges contemporary morality and ethics and leaves you with a head-spinning conundrum.

Joker continually toys with its audience. How much did you like/enjoy it? How far did you sympathise with its main protagonist? Did you understand him? Could you condone him? Is his journey an inevitable one born from society’s indifference and/or ignorance to the issues surrounding him (abuse, mental illness, loneliness and rejection)?

A lot has been made of Joker’s relationship to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, which is accurate and even nodded to in the casting of Robert De Niro in a supporting role. But I was also reminded of Se7en for the way in which it surrounds its viewers in unremitting bleakness, only finding light (via its character’s own epiphany) in its darkest hour.

The result is astonishingly powerful in the way that it delivers a gut punch finale. But then that’s no more than the film deserves.

Essentially a character study, Joker chronicles the rise of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), an unsuccessful clown with dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian, as he slowly becomes one of cinema’s most iconic villains.

Initially, Arthur is just attempting to exist within the squalid, rat-infested streets of Gotham City in 1981. But he’s handicapped by a condition that forces him to laugh uncontrollably in certain situations (of anxiety or distress), meaning that he is written off as a loner and a freak. Worse still, he’s quite often beaten up and left in a crumpled heap.

But after being pushed too far, Arthur begins to assume a new identity – that of a darker clown, partly in response to the media manipulation of a violent situation he was at the centre of. With civil unrest creating a divide between Gotham’s rich and poor, society embraces the Joker as some kind of hero – a cult figure giving voice to a thousand grievances.

It’s only a matter of time before the tensions simmer over and Gotham’s streets are flooded with violent rebellion.

Working from a script co-written by Phillips and Scott Silver, leading man Phoenix offers up a transformative performance as Arthur/Joker, creating a villain who is frighteningly real. As such, comparisons with past Jokers (not least Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight) are redundant.

This is a completely different beast. The focus is almost entirely on Arthur. We witness his pain, his heartbreak, his anguish and his rebellion. And for each of us, there will be a certain point where he crosses the line from anti-hero to out and out psychopath.

But Silver and Phillips don’t just take us on a journey; they explore the reasons for it and its consequence. Arthur’s condition is a focal point for some of the mental health issues facing society today: whether in the lack of funding that sees so many people left to fend for themselves, or in the way that every day people view and often shun it.

Joker

Yet while certainly provocative in its outcome, few people could deny that Arthur’s journey holds a mirror up to American social problems, in particular, and the problems that the right to bear arms brings. In that regard, it is uncomfortable; but designed to be.

Concerns over empowering incel culture (otherwise known as involuntary celibates), or provoking copycat acts, fall wide of the mark, in my opinion. The film isn’t irresponsible in the way it confronts such issues without ever suggesting we should condone them. Rather, it invites viewers to judge for themselves and to perhaps be more wary of these issues… to bring them out into the open. It’s why so much has been, and continues to be, written about it.

Mental health and the battle to recognise and support it is one of the biggest issues surrounding society today. It’s a battle-ground that’s on a par with feminism and race, albeit one that encroaches upon every gender and race. It’s arguably why Phillips chose to place Arthur on a bus filled with people of colour in a key early scene.

But Joker doesn’t empower violent behaviour. Its depiction of violence isn’t gratuitous. It is unsettling and horrible.

And Phillips isn’t seeking to suggest that every case of untreated mental illness is a mass killer in waiting. Such suggestions are as wide of the mark and hysteria promoting as notions of Jaws depicting great white sharks as one of the biggest threats to mankind, which therefore must be hunted to the point of extinction.

Joker is many things, but it doesn’t set out to be dangerous or irresponsible. Rather, some of the accusations being levelled against it could be. What it does promote, in my opinion, is rational debate surrounding sensitive and complex issues.

If this sounds a million miles removed from the notion of what a comic book movie should represent, then that’s perhaps deliberate in part. Joker could yet become its own forum to debate such issues. But as previously stated, it doesn’t lose sight of the requirements of the character.

The final moments are spectacular in the way they set up a potential wider Batman universe, while feeding into what’s known about the characters. If anything, Joker re-imagines the superhero genre in the same way that Christopher Nolan did previously with the Dark Knight trilogy.

In doing so, it also re-establishes a villain as someone to fear, or to be terrified by. At a time when many movie villains are embraced by popular culture and emblazoned across T-shirts, Phoenix’s Joker shouldn’t be able to be ‘idolised’ in such a manner. He’s in no way cool. He does strike fear. He makes you nervous.

Phoenix’s performance is such that he inhabits this person, exposing his complexity for all to see. He can be sympathetic. But there’s always something uneasy about him, something unreal. He gets into our heads and refuses to budge. He lingers and he haunts. We can see why he becomes who he does… but it doesn’t make the journey any easier, or any less sad in its own melancholic way.

Joker is a film to admire more than like. But it shouldn’t be underestimated. It is a massively impressive, highly intelligent, openly provocative and ferociously performed masterpiece.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 2hrs 2mins
UK Release Date: October 3, 2019

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