A film review by Craig J. Koban October 11, 2019

JOKER jjjj

2019, R, 118 mins.

 

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck / Joker  /  Zazie Beetz as Sophie Dumond  /  Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin  /  Brett Cullen as Thomas Wayne  /  Frances Conroy as Penny Fleck  /  Douglas Hodge as Alfred Pennyworth  /  Shea Whigham as GCPD Detective  /  Marc Maron as Ted Marco

Directed by Todd Phillips  /  Written by Phillips and Scott Silver

I needed time after screening JOKER to process all of its limitless complexities.  I resisted the urge to review it immediately after seeing it, mostly because I was still decompressing from it...even days later.  This is one of the most talked about films - in terms of pre and post release coverage - in recent memory, and one that has deeply polarized the media, critics, and fans alike (I'll deep dive into that in a bit).  

With all of the smoke cleared I feel confident in just swinging for the fences by saying that JOKER is definitely one of the most dread inducing and depressingly disturbing films in a long while, and one that intimately and unflinchingly chronicles the journey of one damaged man's descent into unbridled madness.  The film is not easy to watch, to be sure, but it's most definitely a masterstroke work in a very overstuffed comic book film genre that needs - at this stage in the game - a jolt out of creative lethargy. 

To even call this a comic book film is almost misleading.  It's almost more psychological horror.  In fairness, JOKER is a solo, alternate take origin film of Batman's greatest and most famous arch nemesis (occurring outside of the current and ever changing DC Cinematic Universe), showcasing who he really is, where he came from, and how he came to become the Clown Prince of Crime.  This is not a Batman movie, nor is Batman even in it (well...sort of), but rather an expose on the inception of the Joker persona from fairly humble, but troubled beginnings.  There are easy arguments to be levied that the character is more compelling as a cipher, and that knowing less about him makes him a more endlessly compelling agent of bloody chaos.  JOKER wholeheartedly and successfully argues the opposite, and key to its pioneering approach is how it breaks this character down from ground up and daringly redefines him in ways that are both hypnotic and difficult to casually cast aside.  Perhaps even more intoxicating is how it cements Joker in a period setting (in its case, the early 1980s) that also manages to speak towards a lot of societal ills and class divide that feels scarily topical today.  For a comic book film to be as simultaneously frightening and eliciting thought and discussion about its ideas is to JOKER's credit. 

Even to call this film JOKER is questionable.  The makeup covered and green haired dyed sociopath doesn't appear in full form until the film's final sections, and beforehand we see the man behind this villainous facade and his journey into the abyss.  JOKER opens with an introduction to perhaps the most dilapidated and grittily real iteration of Gotham City the movies has ever seen.  It's 1981 and the city has become embroiled in a massive sanitation worker's strike, leading to seemingly every single street corner being literally covered in piled up garbage.  Gotham is a metropolis of decay, with no apparent hope for improvement to come.  It also serves as the home for ex-Arkham State Hospital mental patient Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), who is a heavily medicated, emaciated, and thoroughly unhealthy lower class man struggling to make ends meet as a clown-for-hire.  He lives with his sicker, approaching death mother, Penny (Francis Conroy),  who spends a majority of her bed ridden days watching her favorite late night talk show comedian/host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) and fanatically penning letters to her ex-employer in Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), whom she may or may not have had...shall we say...a beyond professional relationship with.  Thomas is father of Bruce, who eventually will become...you know who. 

Arthur himself also worships Franklin and his show with a passion, fanaticizing about becoming a stand-up comedian and eventually making it on his program as a guest.  There are a few problems that hurt his chances: (1) He's verbally and physically accosted on a daily basis at his clown day job, making him unstable, (2) he suffers from a debilitating aliment that causes him to laugh at the most inopportune moments and (3) he's simply not talented or funny enough.  He tries to find some solace from his misery by taking an interest in one of his rundown apartment building's neighbors in Sophie (DEADPOOL 2's Zazie Beetz).  Unfortunately for poor Arthur, any chance of sustained happiness hopelessly eludes him, and when society has humiliatingly pummeled him to the ground one to many times, he snaps and puts one foot forward down a path to uncontrollable lunacy, with multiple dark detours to come. 

 

 

One thing about JOKER that stands out within minutes of it starting is how gorgeously produced this film is at every level.  With a lean and mean budget of just $55 million (which probably wouldn't have covered the catering on the last AVENGERS blockbuster), JOKER looks consummately polished, lavish, and expensive on the cheap, thanks largely to Lawrence Sher's sepia and cold toned cinematography that evokes a city of yesteryear that feels both familiar and new at the same time (using the old school Warner Brothers logo intro to open the film is a nice vintage touch as well).  JOKER is also a film that wears its cinematic influences on its sleeves, but without feeling aggressively slavish to them.  There's definite narrative and stylistic echoes of Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER and, perhaps to a larger extent, THE KING OF COMEDY (both of which featured De Niro, who appears not-to-coincidentally here).  Married to that is the film's swift cavalcade of comic book Easter Eggs and references, which helps round out JOKER's eclectic aesthetic package. 

I almost forgot to mention that JOKER was co-written and directed by Todd Phillips, who made a career for himself making low brow R-rated comedies like ROAD TRIP and THE HANGOVER trilogy.  Very little on his resume would ever hint that he is confident or competent enough to helm a film this mature, unsettling, and nihilistic.  It's a pretty astounding 180 degree turn for the filmmaker, but he absolutely demonstrates that he has the stuff to make it as a serious dramatic auteur.  Virtuoso direction aside, Phillips and his screenwriter partner Scott Silver understand the importance of giving their titular character an origin narrative that's cruelly believable as a character study, and all while showing some connective tissue with the larger Batman comic book mythology as a whole (which is unavoidable in a film like this).  But, make no mistake about it...this is Joker's film...and no one else's. 

I've run out of superlatives over the years to describe the rich variety of Phoenix's roles and performances, and the Oscar nominated actor, no doubt, has a mightily large shadow cast over him here playing a role that has been made iconic in nearly a century's worth of comics as well as on the silver screen, with actors like Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger putting their immortal stamp on the character (with the latter posthumously winning an Academy Award for his work on THE DARK KNIGHT).  Thanklessly and miraculously, Phoenix manages to make this iteration of the Joker feel wholeheartedly unique and fresh, especially in the sense that he fully commits himself to portraying the character's alter ego in Arthur as a man severely beaten down into an emotionally scarred pulp (he dropped 50 pounds to plausibly inhabit the frame of this sickly man).  But when Arthur's downfall into lunacy completely takes hold Phoenix unleashes himself in the dangerously charming, but sadistically unstable monster that's unpredictably capable of anything.  Phoenix finds the wounded humanity of Arthur while later harnessing this future maniac's rage, which makes JOKER so thoroughly squirm inducing throughout; he has never been so hauntingly mesmerizing in a film. 

All of this, yes, brings me to the avalanche of pre-release controversy that has been levied on the film for months, mostly coming in the form that JOKER is too sadistically violent and that it props up this serial killer as some sort of hero that could inspire certain viewers to copycat his extremes.  On a level of violence, JOKER is indeed graphic, for sure, but it never wallows in rampant bloodshed, nor does it even have a body count that would come close to rivaling other comic book and action films.  Plus, it never glosses over its violence and uses it for sensationalistic effect.  The few deaths that Arthur is directly guilty of here have a shocking, stomach churning immediacy, but it's never glorified for cheap titillation.   We've had so many sanitized PG-13 super hero epics that feature thousands upon thousands of humans being murdered (DC and Marvel are both guilty of this), but those deaths happen on the sidelines and fringes, are rarely ever shown in any detail, and dramatically mean nothing.  Here, Joker's kills feel like a nightmarish and realistic by-product of his unraveling psyche.  When people die in this film...you sickeningly feel it.   

The violence is shocking here, but there are attempts to at least comment on the whys of these depraved acts, which helps erode the more fear mongering criticism that JOKER is a dangerous movie that makes it killer a sympathetic anti-hero.  Arthur is absolutely a figure worthy of deep pity early in the film, and we are made to feel sorry for him.  But when he completes his journey into becoming Joker it's clear that Phillips and company are never once condoning his choices or sadism.  If anything, there's so much more thematically going on under the hood of this film that's never seeing the light of day in media headlines, like how JOKER works as a cautionary parable and speaks towards of the ever widening gap between the haves and have nots and how the rich and powerful of Gotham (including Thomas Wayne) have all but turned their backs on the poor and sick, leaving their city as a whole fractured, divided, and dangerously unstable, fostering a climate that allows for the making of monsters like Arthur's Joker.  The film becomes an indictment of a lack of available social services and mental health support systems, which has eerie parallels to our world of today.  Granted, that doesn't fit neatly on a click bait headline copy as easily as "JOKER is Dangerous, Controversial, and Violent!"...details at 11. 

All while watching JOKER I was reminded of something that Oliver Stone once said: "Films have to be subversive in order for them to be any good, because they force you to look for and ask hard questions that don't have simple and easily defined answers."  In an age when oh-so-many comic book blockbusters offer up perfunctory VFX heavy spectacle, the fact that JOKER - for as difficult as it is to sit through and take in - is actually about something that compels debate and reflection is pretty groundbreaking for the genre, when you think about it.  And the genre needs more films of JOKER's ilk to mature and evolve, even if it means driving a hypodermic needle into its heart to wake it up to transcend and subvert tired formulas.  This film ventures into the darkest psychological underbelly than any other modern comic book effort has, but Phillips and DC deserve props for taking multiple creative risks that have handsomely paid off.   It's pretty clear now that the DC film universe is no longer a laughing matter. 

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