By George Biggs (@GeorgeIBiggs)
Todd Phillips’ Joker is a paradox. It is exhaustingly bleak and depressing; it is constantly phenomenal and captivating. It is by no means a happy viewing experience, but Joker stirs up a morbid curiosity – about the human condition, about bullies and the bullied, about an uncaring, malicious world – and it simply can’t be ignored.
Joker follows Arthur Fleck, who’s less a Clown Prince of Crime, and more a tortured, deranged nobody. He navigates a Gotham that’s darker than any we’ve seen before, a city where the class lines are lacerated. The poor struggle to get by, estranged to their own society. Meanwhile, the rich are decadent, blind to poverty or condescending to those in it’s grasp. The first act sees Gotham’s health services cut, leaving Arthur without his medication. Joker tracks his subsequent decent into the eponymous murderous madman.
Other notable characters include Penny, Arthur’s frail, unwell mother (played by Frances Conroy); Murray Franklin, Gotham’s favourite chat show host (played by Robert De Niro) and Sophie, Arthur’s mysterious, beautiful neighbour (played by Zazie Beetz). There’s also surprising cameos relating to The Caped Crusader himself.
As expected, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck was outstanding. This joker is unlike any other. He’s not a scheming, eccentric mastermind – not like Heath Ledger or Mark Hamill’s versions. He’s a man floored by his mental illnesses on the daily. The iconic cackle of the Joker is reimagined as a kind of nervous tick. When anxious or excited, laughter debilitates him. It’s a shriek that forces Arthur to grasp his spasming throat.
Though Joaquin gives Arthur’s voice a fantastically eerie quality, both whispery and childlike, it’s his nonverbal performance that elevates this performance to legendary status. This Joker is enjoys dancing. When he undergoes an experience he considers cathartic, Arthur’s warring mind is at harmony, and his body dances a slow, contorting dance. One of the most powerful moments in the film doesn’t involve violence, cackling or confrontation. It involves Arthur looking at his movements through a grubby mirror in an empty, dirty bathroom.
Joaquin’s superb performance simply glues this film together.
Of course, Joker is not without issues: some of the material is seriously problematic or awkward. Through a variety of characters, the film presents a dated, ill-informed image of mental illness: it’s considered a singularly violent epidemic from which victims can never recover. The presentation of childhood and upbringing as entirely deterministic is also unsettling.
A more infamous issue with Joker is it’s fixation with class war and populist revolutions. A sinister cocktail of rhetoric is stirred up around Arthur – a sickly combination of pessimistic nihilism, anti-establishment ideals and violent uprisings. The most extreme critics of Philips argue that the director incites this kind of anarchy; that he encourages Joker ‘copy-cats’ to murder the privileged for the good of the unprivileged.
This analysis probably takes it a little far, but it is undeniable that these undercurrents detracted from Joaquin’s performance. The politicisation of Arthur’s internal turmoil makes this personal conflict seem less significant. At no point is Arthur Fleck a socially aware, political mouthpiece – so it’s strange when the film demands he be.
Regardless, the Joker has been an unprecedented hit. It’s earnings soared past its $55 million budget, recently pushing past the $300 million mark. It’s a powerful, deeply intriguing character piece that’s certainly worth a watch.
Rating: * * * * *
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