Thursday 10 October 2019

Film Review: Joker

Send in the clowns – it's time to review Todd Phillips' Joker.

Batman's litany of villains is without question the most interesting in the comic book world, and it's the Joker, a cackling, purple-suited 'clown prince of crime', that is the pick of the bunch. Since he made his comic debut in 1940, the Joker has captivated audiences both on the page and the silver screen – so it was only a matter of time before he received the standalone origin story treatment.

Serving as cowriter and director, Todd Phillips (of Starsky and Hutch and The Hangover trilogy fame) takes the character of Joker and warps familiar elements into a new and occasionally unfamiliar story. In this version, we meet a dishevelled rent-a-clown called Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a socially-awkward sad sack who suffers from a debilitating condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate moments.

Fleck lives with his mother in a dilapidated Gotham City apartment. He aspires to be a stand-up comedian, and spends his evenings captivated by Robert De Niro's late night TV host, Murray Franklin. He loses his job soon after, and from there it's all downhill. Jilted by a cold and uncaring society at every turn, Fleck loses his handle on right and wrong, inching closer to the Joker persona that will one day lock horns with Gotham's Caped Crusader.

There's been a lot of hullabaloo online and in the media about Joker and the themes that Phillips, Phoenix and cowriter Scott Silver are dealing with in this film. Will the film's violence inspire further violence in the real world? And will thrusting the Joker to the forefront cause certain members of the audience to herald him a personal hero (more so than they already do?)

My take, in short, is no and not quite. Joker, despite its best efforts, is nowhere near as outrageous or as shocking as the hype would have you believe. It likes to think of itself as a new spin on a familiar character, but pinches from other, better films – namely, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Phillips doesn't shy away from these homages – I mean, he cast Robert De Niro for crying out loud – and Joker, for all its unoriginality, is at least borrowing from the best.

With the late Heath Ledger leaving such an imprint on the character, Phoenix certainly had big clown shoes to fill when taking on the titular role in this film. An actor who doesn't deal in half measures, Phoenix is captivating as this downtrodden and forgotten man who finds himself being slowly squashed by the heel of capitalism and apathy.

Inhabiting a frail, emaciated frame, Phoenix looks the part. A shaky Jenga tower of ticks that is ready to topple over at any moment, the film really puts Arthur through the ringer – from the opening scene where a gang of youths kick the shit out of him for no reason to the systematic indifference that leads to him being stonewalled by almost everyone he comes into contact with. He's a wisp of a man floating through a city that couldn't care less if he fell down and died right there, and Phoenix captures this dizzying mixture of helplessness, anger and desperation with aplomb.

By the time Arthur is decked out in a sharp red suit, green hair and face paint, he's committed some truly unspeakable acts – a man we might have once felt sympathy for has well and truly lost his way. And yet, I don't think Phillips goes far enough. Come the end of the film, this iteration of Joker is still a far cry from Ledger or Mark Hamill's tyrannical terrorist.

If anything, he's a different character. The difference being, Ledger never had an origin. He just was, and that was scary. But in Joker, we're shown his slow descent into madness, the straws the slowly broke the camels back. We're shown a man with nothing left to live for – and maybe that's even scarier?

Enough philosophising. We're getting sidetracked. Joker, in addition to Phoenix's terrific performance, looks simply amazing. This grimy depiction of Gotham doesn't have the same gothic grandeur as Burton and Schumacher, so it feels more like our world. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher's use of shallow focus is complemented by deep, haunting cello from composer Hildur Guðnadóttir. And Phillips often frames his protagonist in odd, provocative ways – angles that emphasise Phoenix's jawline or silhouette. If nothing else, Joker is a gorgeous film to look at.

The Verdict: 7.5/10

As a one-shot character study, Phillips unpacks a classic character by probing into a previously murky past. The suffocating darkness won't be for everyone, and some sections of the audience will fawn over Joker's thin grasp on politics in pursuit of something deeper – but whatever commentary Joker offers about 'society' is shallow at best.

Personally, I felt the film strived to connect itself into the wider Batman mythos at the expense of narrative cohesion – but others will enjoy scouring the film for all the winks and nudges. It works best when it lets Phoenix put his own idiosyncratic spin on the character – public bathroom ballet practice and all.

Joker is in cinemas across Australia now.

1 comment:

  1. You liked this quite a bit more than I did, but I agree that the film isn't nearly as outrageous as the online community would have you believe.



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