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Joker – Review

Joker is an inflated examination of how an autocratic society can spark revolt from the underprivileged and beleaguered. But Todd Phillips’ ace in his hand is undoubtedly Joaquin Phoenix’s mesmeric performance.

Since provoking an eight-minute standing ovation from spectators at the Venice film festival in August, Tod Phillip’s origin story about the birth of Batman’s cackling nemesis has been lamented by critics for its supposedly ‘cynical’, ‘toxic’, and ‘irresponsible’ emphasis on violence and debauchery. However after seeing the film, the social media storm in a teacup seems like the only thing that’s been exaggerated. For me, the only real question heading into the theatre was: is Joker really the masterpiece reviews are proclaiming it to be?

The answer is a no, but it comes very, very close. Joaquin Phoenix’s hypnotic and physically taxing portrayal of the Joker is undoubtedly the main attraction here, but there’s plenty to enjoy from the raw style cinematography and nightmarish score too. It’s the overarching story that somewhat fails to permeate the surface level and delve into the political landscape outside of Arthur Fleck’s perception. The social commentary is half-baked at best. However, most of us get what we came for; a slow-burn biopic which delves into the moral, emotional, and physical make-up of the man who would eventually go on to plunge Gotham into chaos.

Set in the 1980s, Gotham is a city befouled by garbage strikes and overrun with gigantic ‘super rats’. Under the rule of wealthy billionaire Thomas Wayne (Batman’s paps), the rich stay rich while the impoverished are left to wallow in squalor (remind you of anything). Teeming with crime, the government has little time or resources for those below the bread line, and Arthur Fleck is one of society’s most unfortunate – I want to say victims… but knowing what I know

Despite Phillips’ assurances to the contrary, this Joker is undeniably presented as something of a sympathetic anti-hero from the get-go. Reduced to a skeletal state by a diet of little more than nicotine and pain (reminiscent of Christian Bale in The Machinist), clown-for-hire and aspiring comedian Arthur Fleck slowly descends into a scornful vengeance after being continually shunned, abused, and mocked by those around him. His obscure sense of humour and twitchy demeanour are exacerbated by a strange disorder that rouses painful laughter whenever he’s uncomfortable or under duress, and it makes for a whole lot of truly pitiful and painful viewing. It must’ve been agony for Phoenix too.

Arthur’s solace from a volatile world is provided by his mother whom he lives with in their dingy city apartment, and also by his favourite chat show host Murray Franklin, a sickly crowd-pleaser played by Robert De Niro. Arthur nightly scooches up beside his elderly mother in bed to watch the Murry Franklin Show and dreams of being accepted and embraced by him. However, his dream is marred by the reality of their meeting toward the film’s jaw-dropping crescendo.

Those who are familiar with the comics will quickly discover that almost all ties to source material have been severed. This is a standalone hard-hitting psychological thriller that deals with real-life issues and spares no punches, unlike the colourful CGI-stuffed showings we’re become familiar with from multiplexes in recent years. The tone is unrelentingly bleak throughout, and visually the movie is no different. There’s a distinct absence of colour, aside from the odd spattering of crimson red, and every scene is marred with a scratchy and shadowy filter which accompanies the narrative perfectly.

For all its positives, and there are a lot, personally I found the story to be a little lacking in places. It was entertaining pretty much from start to finish – bar a bit of meandering around half-way through – but Phillips struggled to fully tackle the themes of mental illness, poverty, class, and the role of the media in creating the same bad people they try to dispel in any meaningful way. He didn’t appear to have a clear idea of where to head with any of them beyond merely skimming the surface, and at times it felt like a slightly hollow imitation of Taxi Driver.

I don’t want anyone to think I’m not a fan of the movie – it’s one of the better films I’ve seen in recent years and probably my favourite comic book film since The Dark Knight. It’s just frustrating that Joker was a few better decisions away from being an absolute masterpiece. The ties to the Wayne family just felt shoehorned and took away from the Joker’s own story, and towards the finale it made it feel something like a pseudo-Batman origin. We really don’t need that again.

Overall, Joker stands up and emerges as a very good film, it’s just a little flawed. Its story of a man’s path from victimisation to vengeance is as enjoyable as it is disturbing, and I really wouldn’t be surprised to see Phoenix land an Academy Award for his eerily perfect portrayal of DC’s most iconic supervillain.

I will just say, if you’re 15, wait a few years. They seriously messed up with the age rating.

out of 5

The performance of a lifetime for Phoenix

While Tod Phillips' story is wildly over-hyped, Phoenix brings DC's prince of crime to life in a way we've never seen before


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