Joker has recently hit our screens as easily one of the most controversy laden releases of the year.
Acclaimed comedy writer/director Todd Phillips (Road Trip, Old School, The Hangover Trilogy) is at the helm as he continues his foray into more gritty and serious material following 2016’s War Dogs. Strong praise for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance and the overall tone of the film have been balanced with equal hysteria. This hysteria has come largely through tabloid and online furore over the movie’s violence and the soundtrack choices. Needless to say these debates have generated a ton of publicity but the ultimate question is, “Is Joker any good”?
In contrast to the comic book movies we are used too, Joker is very much a character study. The focus of this study is Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a clown for hire who has little to smile about in his near invisible life. Arthur who suffers from a string of mental health issues, also has a neurological condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at the most inopportune moments.
In an environment as uncaring as 1980’s Gotham, Arthur has little in the way of support from friends or medical professionals. His only real human connection is with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy) who has her own health problems and never ventures outside of their shared apartment. To try and draw some happiness from life Arthur aspires to become a stand-up comedian much like his idol, TV comic/chat show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). He also yearns for a relationship with his neighbour Sophie (Zazie Beats) who he occasionally passes in the hall.
A run of bad luck, which is saying something for luckless Arthur, sparks a chain of events that leads Arthurs fragile existence to unravel. To say anymore regarding the specifics of Arthur’s journey would detract from the experience however, by the conclusion of the film Arthur’s metamorphosis into the Joker is complete.
At this point I can confirm that the praise for Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur/Joker is not misplaced. The physical and emotional depiction of this very broken man are captivating and if Heath Ledger was worthy of winning an Oscar for his portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime then Phoenix has a busy awards season ahead.
There are moments your heart bleeds for the hardships this once innocent man has had to face, but this sympathy is very much countered by the horror of his choices across the course of the film. For my money this portrayal of Joker might just be the definitive one, all the grit of Heath Ledger but just a little bit more maniacal. We’ll see if the studio, director and actor will stick to their assertion it is a stand alone film. I for one would certainly welcome the opportunity to see this Joker square off against Batman!
As part of this review I feel it is necessary to comment on some of the elements of Joker that have generated the most controversy. There have been concerns that the themes in Joker could serve as a trigger for people suffering from mental illness to commit copycat acts of violence. As I mentioned above there are times you sympathise with Arthur and the ordeals he has to face, but any rational human will know the difference between the correct response and one that is wrong. Anyone who does not know the difference between right and wrong will find motivation to commit acts of violence regardless of whether the have watched this film, or any other for that matter.
Regarding the levels of violence as a whole, Joker certainly does portray a more realistic and visceral level of violence than other comic book films. However, for anyone who watches films outside of the comic book genre, the levels of violence never feel disproportionate given the subject material. If you compare the violence with that of Rambo: Last Blood for example, Joker comes out looking like a Disney film.
Todd Phillips has created a film that stands alone in the comic book genre, not because it is necessarily the best film in it’s genre (it isn’t), but because it dares to do something different. The influences from DC source material, such as the Killing Joke, are clear however this is very much an original take on the most famous supervillain of all time. It is this familiar yet original approach, coupled with Joaquin Phoenix’s stellar performance, that make Joker a must-watch experience.
By Mark Jankowski