03rd Oct2019

‘Joker’ Review

by Stuart Wright

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Marc Maron | Written by Todd Phillips, Scott Silver | Directed by Todd Phillips

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IMDB’s one line description of Joker is almost misleading, while also being to the point: “A gritty character study of Arthur Fleck, a man disregarded by society.” Why no mention of the DC Universe? Why not a ‘Joker’ origins story? Why so reticent to claim to be a piece of the franchise jigsaw? Only Scott Frank’s Logan comes close, but that tragic tale dealt with the death of a hero. This is most certainly the birth of a nihilist villain. However, he’s doesn’t possess a villainous bone in his body – to start with.

An emaciated Joaquin Phoenix plays down trodden, and out of luck Arthur Fleck to his absolute physical best. Among the many acting techniques and exercises he must have drawn on to pull it off, he had to have called up The Machinist’s Christian Bale for advice on extreme weight loss tips. Fleck is a clown for hire and dreams of being a stand up comic. When a street performance gig goes wrong, he gets beaten up by his aggressors and comes close to getting fired for his troubles. Eventually, he pushes his employer that bit too far and loses his job. By this stage he’s lost his social worker and now fends for his mental well-being, all by himself. Free of the system’s checks and balances, Fleck’s mind slowly slips out of civil society’s shackles. His ticks and idiosyncrasies now define him. They’re no longer an alert to pop another pill, or ask for help. Joker’s grim, descent of an isolated, vulnerable man, is clever in the way it makes it hard to pinpoint the fractures in the narrative where sane Arthur Fleck’s point of view shifts so far that he’s now insane. Blink and you may miss it. The biggest clues come from his absurd crush he has on his single-mom neighbour, and his vivid dreams of appearing on TV.

Set in a mid to late seventies period Gotham, there’s clear echoes of the New York 1975 garbage strikes all around the production. The appearance of a giant rat wandering by Phoenix is something for the more attentive to spot. The wonderfully oppressive and depressing colour palette of director Todd Phillips’ go-to cinematographer Lawrence Sher gives you a reality where no one need ever smile again – unless it’s painted on. It’s tempting to draw parallels with Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver. Robert De Niro, playing funny talkshow host, and Fleck’s comedy idol, Murray Franklin, only reinforces this surface observation.

However, yellow cab driving anti-hero Travis Bickle is not comparable with Arthur Fleck. The former is a victim of a society who packed him off to war and didn’t care about him when he was ‘lucky’ enough to return. Joker, on the other hand, is a serious treatise on the state of mental health care – then and now. Arthur Fleck is a victim of his genetic make up. He’s not been damaged by cruel circumstances out of his control. He’s always been damaged and needs help to get through life. You cut the money being invested in care provisions to save yourself some tax dollars, the consequences are here to see. Okay, you don’t literally give birth to the Joker, but for purposes of this film, Phillips appears unapologetic in wanting you to see what an uncaring society looks like and how that might breed much of the untold chaos. It’s important to note that it’s not a trite causation and correlation summation either. Far from it, Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver (8 Mile, The Fighter) tell a micro story about one man. This isn’t about all mental illness sufferers. It isn’t claiming all mental illness is potentially dangerous to others. It’s about the character of Arthur Fleck – like the IMDB short synopsis promises.

Fleck’s deluded mother, gently played by American Horror Story stalwart Frances Conroy, drops the Wayne surname bomb a couple of times early on, but the significance of her relationship to that family is saved for later and provides all the emotional violence Fleck could ever need to justify his skewed need for retribution. Helped amiably along by the cruel arrogance of billionaire Thomas Wayne. Portraying him as a proto-Trump type politician can’t have been accidental. And it is with delicious irony when he utters: “Gotham’s lost its way. What kind of coward would do something that coldblooded? Someone who hides behind a mask.” Much of Joker is an internal struggle. You’re left wondering where it’s heading. There is no slow build to a city collapsing in on itself until only the good guys are left standing. When Fleck finally strikes out it has no real purpose beyond the sociopathic path he now accepts he is on. As the ferocity increases, so the Joker inevitably enters into solid Batman territory per the obligations of choosing to make a licensed product movie. Nevertheless, the script almost manages to escape the shade of its franchise demands.

However, the north-star that keeps everything on track is ultimately the DC universe and this gripping, downbeat story must collide with things we know to be Batman. The greatest, back-handed compliment to pay this movie is that Phillips and co. made a fantastic Joker origins tale that felt human and real, despite the weight of expectations and pressures that must come from the studio heads and fans alike.

**** 4/5

Joker is released in UK cinemas tomorrow, Friday October 4th.

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