DIRECTOR: todd phillips (the hangover, war dogs, due date)
STARRING: joaquin phoenix, frances conroy, zazie beetz, and robert de niro
REVIEWER: lyall carter
Joker explores the origin of Batman's iconic arch nemesis through the backstory of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man disregarded by society.
Aside from Leo, Joaquin Phoenix is the most unlucky actor of his generation when it comes to winning the big acting gongs. Nominated three times for Oscars (Best Supporting Actor in Gladiator and for Best Actor in Walk the Line and The Master) Phoenix's award winning luck is summed up perfectly in Peter O'Toole's famous musing on his own failure to win an Oscar despite being nominated numerous times: "Always the bridesmaid, never the bride."
Even just last year Phoenix gave three very different but brilliant performances as a very Caucasian Jesus in Mary Magdalene, a quadriplegic in the fantastic but criminally overlooked Don't Worry He Won't Get Far on Foot, and as a beat up gun for hire in the brutally magnificent You Were Never Really Here. All award worthy performances, all pretty much overlooked. But not this year. Joaquin Phoenix is in hand ringingly mad, volcanically explosive form in Joker. One of the best performances in recent memory.
Forever alone in a crowd, failed comedian Arthur Fleck seeks connection as he walks the streets of Gotham City. Arthur wears two masks - the one he paints for his day job as a clown, and the guise he projects in a futile attempt to feel like he's part of the world around him. Isolated, bullied and disregarded by society, Fleck begins a slow descent into madness as he transforms into the criminal mastermind known as the Joker.
I've read a couple of fairly negative reviews regarding Joker which attempt to point out that the story begins to address mental illness and child abuse without having the courage to really tackle them. Thats as accurate as saying that Hunt for the Wilderpeople didn't address the reality of what life is like for a foster kid. I guess for those who need their themes spelled out for them like the Word for the Day on Sesame Street then yeah, it doesn't address those issues.
Joker is the kind of movie that doesn't need a narrator to do all the explaining for you, to spell it all out. Its a character study where we the viewer get to witness what years of neglect, abuse, and ill treatment does to a person. We explore the themes through Fleck's experience. The narrative doesn't have some incredible arc but sporadically follows Arthur Fleck's response to what the world throws at him and his continued inability to be unable to deal with it. For a film of the magnitude of Joker its bravery and sheer audacity in its single vision as a focused gritty character driven drama is something to applaud raucously.
And the character of Fleck who eventually becomes Joker in this film is unlike any of the powerful, evil, cunning, and violent incarnations that we've previously witnessed. He's below the bottom of the social heap struggling with mental health and constant abuse from the public. He's weak physically too; literally skin and bones. But one day he finally stands up for himself and fights back. And its in fighting back that he slowly stumbles towards his destiny of becoming the Joker. And its both brilliantly and chillingly arresting to witness in equal measure. In the screening I attended people sat stunned through the credits. It hits like a powerful sucker punch to the Adam's apple.
As well as exploring the personal themes of abuse and mental health through the characterisation of Fleck, Joker examines the power structures surrounding him in Gotham. One of the aspects I loved was how the Wayne family were portrayed. Not as the saviours of Gotham but as rich and privileged who think they have to descend from on high into the muck to save the poor, uneducated masses from themselves. They are shown to be completely naive and out of touch, unaware that even though personal responsibility can get you so far, power structures can keep people under the thumb. Not since V for Vendetta has there been a comic book film that addresses the current cultural and political climate head on like Joker.
But ultimately this film belongs to Joaquin Phoenix. He is just hands down brilliant. Even if you're not a fan of comic book films (this is probably the most uncomic book comic book film ever anyway) you have to go and see it. He is wide eyed, dancing and prancing, cackling, whimpering, and with a cold as death stare in this. Phoenix is extremely gaunt too, having lost over 20 kgs (over 50 pounds) for the role. It wonderfully adds to the character especially as he slowly and crazily dances around his living room.
People will ask and probably try and compare Phoenix's performance with Ledger's in The Dark Knight. They're both superb performances, equal to each others. Don't compare, just revel in both.
The supporting cast are all solid with well known character actors popping up in small rolls. Because a lot of the screen time is dedicated to Joker it doesn't leave a lot of room for other characters to develop but De Niro, as expected, shines in his role.
A gritty, character drama of thundering power, Joker addresses the current cultural and political climate head on. Joaquin Phoenix is in hand ringingly mad, volcanically explosive form that should see him land every Best Actor award in showbiz.