Film Critic Charlotte Tomlinson reviews Joker, a violent tale for our troubled times
This is not a superhero movie. Director Todd Phillips has instead crafted a cultural successor to Taxi Driver, illustrating the incel generation, opioid epidemic, and the moral failings of capitalism. Stepping away from his previous work in comedies such as The Hangover, he has crafted a character study of one of the greatest villains ever committed to fiction.
The film centres around Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and his terrible life working as a down-and-out clown for hire. The Gotham City he inhabits, inspired by 1980s New York, is filled with constant aggression towards him. Following cuts to social services, he struggles to live in his squalid apartment with his near-catatonic mother. Their only solace is watching a late night talk show on TV, hosted by Murray Franklin, portrayed by Robert De Niro, a clear reprisal of his role in The King of Comedy. Unable to tell the difference between reality and his twisted delusions, Arthur finally breaks the tragic cycle that is his life through murder and brutality; a descent from would-be clown to Joker, the clown prince of crime.
Phillips succeeds at crafting a desolate Gotham through inescapable wide, long shots that tower over Arthur, as well as unsteady tracking shots that constantly refuse to leave him alone. The cinematography of Joker is, thankfully, unlike the dour palettes of the major superhero films today. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher isn’t afraid of exposing natural sunlight to such a decrepit city, unlike in previous DC films such as Batman v Superman and The Dark Knight, and captures the pastel tones of 80s New York, colourised by cigarette stains and the blue glow of the television set. The haunting strings of the original score from Chernobyl composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, also facilitates Arthur’s descent into villainy, and Gotham’s descent into anarchy.
The centrepiece of this film is the performance from Joaquin Phoenix. There are few actors working today whose performance could make such a despicable figure so endearing. In preparation for the role, he lost fifty-two pounds to masterfully contort his skeletal figure in order to embody a tragic, abused character unable to find the solace he needs from others. He can stumble slowly in pain, then pounce in a depraved, brutal fashion, like an arthritic tiger. It is the subtleties of his performance that are the most profound, for even through tragic slapstick he can communicate the impact an abusive childhood takes on a man. The best moments of the film are when he is alone, where in such isolation we peer into the pitiful fantasies of this clown who cries on the inside and transforms into a despicable villain.
Arthur’s descent into criminal insanity is punctuated by violence. The controversy surrounding how the film depicts this is justified: this is not your Tarantino, stylised violence. There is no quip, Bang!, then cue the music. The camera does not flinch away as Arthur clearly finds his destruction of human life cathartic. The sound design and cinematography aid the gore and bloody realism of sequences that are essentially The Benny Hill Show with a body count. Its violent content may leave the audience around you audibly gagging in shock. The presentation stops short of glorifying violence, but still sees it as a means to an end. Arthur’s descent into villainy feels cheapened by corpses, as though it’s there to facilitate the audience’s expectations based on the superhero genre the film is rooted in.
Untethered to franchise responsibilities, Phoenix had the capacity to embody suffering itself, unleash a socio-political black swan and delve deeper into the character’s psyche than Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle, but Phillips’ writing and direction restricts him to merely being a jester to wider franchise responsibilities. For a man who had previously been nominated for the Oscar for best writing on Borat, the dialogue is heavily expositional. Every line of both the script and even Arthur’s diary follows the same ‘we live in a society’ message, with the clown notably scribbling how his life will ‘make more cents when I’m dead’.
However, as previously stated, this is not a superhero movie. This is the first major comic book movie to be set in a world where there are no superheroes, and the villain is a mirror to the audience. This is the furthest departure a comic book movie has ever gone from its source material; therefore I would happily recommend it to any who has the stomach. This type of film, with all its ambiguity, welcomes multiple viewings, although it may become clear that it is Joaquin’s performance that is holding the film together, distracting us from the shallowness of Phillips’ forced social message.
Joker is about a man abandoned and unleashed, with the title role masterfully portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix. Phillips has crafted a violent tale for our troubled times with an intended conscious message, making this a villain that we can hopefully learn from.
Joker is in cinemas now.
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