DIR: Todd Phillips • WRI: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver • DOP: Lawrence Sher • ED: Jeff Groth • DES: Mark Friedberg • PRO: Bradley Cooper, Todd Phillips, Emma Tillinger Koskoff • MUS: Hildur Guðnadóttir • CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro
Why do the lonely quiet American boys find themselves drawn to violence? Beneath the mask of a film about one of the most iconic comic book villains, writer-director Todd Phillips has crafted a stark character study that deals with just that. Joker is a powerhouse cinematic odyssey, that descends into the inner psyche of failing comedian, Arthur Fleck. This is the kind of visceral, unfettered filmmaking, that induces states of near-paralysis, as it pushes forward, in a bold, desperate search for catharsis.
The year is 1980, or maybe 81. Arthur(Joaquin Phoenix) brushes white clown makeup on in careful strokes. His face is gaunt and sickly white, his hair, long and disheveled. He studies his face in the mirror and brandishes a smile. His lonely eyes radiate nothing but unsettling anxiety, none of which disappears after he’s viciously mugged on the streets of Gotham. Naturally, none of this helps Arthur’s mental health, which is in dire straits, but he can’t seem to stop laughing, “Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?” he says to his psychologist, but what can she even say.
Arthur lives in a derelict block in a cramped apartment with his mother ( Frances Conroy). She’s frail, withered, and her words are a tangle of hopeless delusions. She’s convinced would-be Mayor, Thomas Wayne, is going to help her and Arthur rise out of destitution. But when a colleague at work gives him a gun for protection, Arthur’s life quickly descends into hellish depths of tragedy. Threatened by a trio of businessmen on the subway he snaps, murdering them with a rain of gunfire. This act is hailed by some as justice for Gotham’s disenfranchised citizens, and riotous mobs gather in the streets, hailing the Clown killer a hero. This growing social unrest and newfound celebrity, only seem to propel Arthur’s prophetic transformation into Joker.
This is a career-defining performance, by one of the best character actors of his generation. Joaquin Phoenix never flinches, as he boldly risks everything to bring Arthur to life. His performance is a nuanced dance, that hovers through a netherworld, between humanity and psychosis to a state of virtuoso insanity. Phoenix brings a sincerity and empathy to a man who goes over the cliff edge of his own sanity. The cast is rounded out with stellar supporting performances from Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Robert DeNiro, and Marc Maron.
Director Todd Phillips’ cinematic vision has a clear foundation in the language and style of ’70s cinema, owing a clear debt to Taxi Driver in particular. The harsh bleak realism of Joker is balanced with bursts of the surreal. The grit of the streets and back alleys is met with the fluorescent color of Jokers’ transcendent dances. Joker’s Gotham is a darkened landscape of oppressive shadows and tiering skyscrapers. The tightknit lighting and camera work comes courtesy of cinematographer Lawrence Sher. But all this is elevated by Hildur Guonadottir’s menacing score, which seemingly ignites the embers raging within Arthur’s heart. And none of this would have been possible, without the Trojan work of production designer Mark Friedberg, and Oscar-winning costume designer Mark Bridges, who both bring the world to life.
Ultimately, Joker is near Shakespearean in its tragic scope. It’s Macbeth for the comic book movie generation, and easily the most morally complex comic book film since The Dark Knight. This isn’t a black and white portrayal of a villain, the moral boundaries here are far more ambiguous. When you strip away all justice, fairness, and equality, and push a mentally sick person to the absolute limit, the result is never going to be a pretty picture. Ultimately, any discomfort or objections to the film will derive from the uncomfortable realization, that most people, given the right circumstances, are capable of some pretty terrible things. But at the end of the day, this is a film about how a monster is made, and what’s terrifying is his humanity, expecting anything less would just be a mistake. And when Joker finally hits his punchline, he gets the last laugh; and it’s electric to watch.
16 (see IFCO for details)
Joker is released 4th October 2019