Should I Watch..? 'Joker'
What's the big deal?
Joker is a dark psychological thriller film released in 2019 and is based on characters created by DC Comics. The film is a possible origin story for the popular Batman villain Joker and stars Joaquin Phoenix as a struggling stand-up comedian in 1981 finding himself at odds with the decaying society all around him. The film also stars Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy and Brett Cullen. Although the film's premise is based on the graphic novel The Killing Joke, the film actually takes its inspiration from Martin Scorsese films like Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy. Directed and co-written by Todd Phillips, the film is not a part of the DC Extended Universe such as films like Justice League or Aquaman. The film proved controversial when it was released - while critics applauded Phoenix's performance and the film's soundtrack, the use of violence and its portrayal of mental illness created some debate. Audiences were much more receptive as the film generated global sales in excess of $1 billion (at time of writing) and would go to be nominated for a leading eleven Academy Awards.
What's it about?
In 1981, professional clown and struggling stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck is not in a good place. Living and caring for his ailing mother Penny, Arthur suffers from a medical condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably and combined with his other mental health issues, he requires medication provided through social services. Unfortunately, Gotham City is not a safe place with crime on the increase and financial pressures causing a strain on the city's services. After getting attacked working on the city's streets, Arthur is given a gun by his co-worker Randall in order to protect himself.
After meeting his neighbour Sophie Dumond and inviting her to a forthcoming stand-up performance, Arthur's world slowly begins to fall apart after a mishap entertaining children in a hospital. Fired from his job and deprived of his medication due to funding cuts in social services, Arthur begins a steady decline into madness after a violent incident on the Gotham subway. As his breakdown continues, Arthur begins to break free of his personal shackles - with terrifying consequences...
Robert De Niro
Todd Phillips & Scott Silver*
Release Date (UK)
4th October, 2019
Crime, Drama, Thriller
Best Actor (Phoenix), Best Original Score
Academy Award Nominations
Best Film, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing
Razzie Award Nominations
Worst Reckless Disregard for Human Life and Public Property
What's to like?
There is a famous line of dialogue in The Killing Joke (which is well worth a read if you find the time) the Joker says where he proclaims "If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!". That is the approach Phillips takes with the film - a twisted spiral of ideas and influences that offer more questions than answers. The film's masterstroke is its screenplay and the fact that it mirrors the unreliable viewpoint of its central character, which means we're never entirely sure whether what we're seeing is fact or delusion. I loved the gritty atmosphere of the film's setting which mirrors the urban decay seen in films like Taxi Driver, an obvious inspiration for the film. Less subtle but just as effective in setting the scene is the pulsating score of Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, which is just as distorted and unsettling as Arthur himself.
But the film will undoubtedly be best remembered for its mesmeric central performance by Phoenix as the Clown Prince of Crime. The role has seen plenty of different interpretations over the years from the dangerous anarchy of Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight to Jared Leto's divisive performance in Suicide Squad. But none have matched the emotional heft Phoenix brings to the role, delivering an almost sympathetic character but one that's understandably dark and unfathomable at times. His performance is full of quirks and ticks and for my money, his is the most complete and compelling performance as Joker we've ever seen in cinema. Despite dominating the picture, Phoenix does allow his supporting cast time to shine. Beetz is fantastic as Arthur's potential love interest while De Niro is eerily reminiscent of many American talk show hosts as well as a mirror to his performance in the aforementioned The King Of Comedy.
One final word about the level of violence in the film - it is less about the amount and more the effect. The violence often comes out of nowhere and is shockingly brutal and bloody but I'd argue that it is supposed to be. Fleck is obviously an unstable individual and the Joker should always be on the edge of explosive and excessive violence. Phoenix feels genuinely dangerous as the character becomes more committed to the path he's chosen so I have no issue with the film's levels of gore, even if it might seem too much at times. In fact, I'd argue that such images and moments are necessary to do the film and the character proper justice. This Joker is wild and unpredictable, just as he should be.
- Phoenix admitted that the hardest part of the role was getting the character's iconic laugh right. He studied videos of people suffering from pathological laughter and called it "something that's almost painful. I think, for Joker, it's a part of him that wants to emerge."
- In addition to the graphic novel The Killing Joke and the films of Martin Scorsese, the film is also based on the real-life 1984 subway shootings in New York which Phillips recalls as he lived in New York at the time. It's been rumoured that the role of Fleck was loosely based on the shooter Bernhard Goetz.
- Phoenix lost some 23kg (52 lbs) in weight for the role, despite being frequently tempted by Phillips on set. He kept leaving bags of pretzels around his office, something Phoenix is very partial to and found very hard to resist!
- Hildur Guðnadóttir became just the fourth solo woman in history to win Best Original Score at the Academy Awards. She is also the first solo woman to win both the Golden Globe & BAFTA awards in the same category. Phoenix is also the second actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor in the role after Ledger's posthumous victory in The Dark Knight in 2008.
What's not to like?
As remarkable as it is that such a serious film as this came from the same director as The Hangover, I did feel that Phillips spent too much of the movie inserting visual reminders of his inspirations. It feels as much of a tribute to Scorsese's gritty character studies as it does to the beloved comic supervillain, in the same way that Tarantino likes to pay tribute to other directors in his films. I also wasn't a fan of the second half of the film which sees the film take on a political slant and take pot-shots at the rich and social elite. I don't think the film needed it and I also don't think such a cultural phenomenon would spread as quickly as it does in the film in the days before Twitter, the internet and mobile phones. 1981 was a long time ago, you know.
But my biggest issue is a personal one which is hard to explain. As someone who is fairly open about my own ongoing struggles with mental health over the years, the film poses some uncomfortable questions. Is Arthur destined to become the Joker because of his mental illness or is he a victim of society's cruelty to those less fortunate? Certainly, I felt less comfortable discussing my depression and anxiety after seeing the film (albeit, rather briefly) which might provide those ignorant of such issues with the ammunition they need to restrict certain rights. I also felt that the film didn't do a great job of depicting what it is like to struggle on a day-to-day basis. Arthur is shown simply being one of life's losers who is helpless until he discovers how to fight back, with deadly results. I was pleased to see that the film illustrates the link between social care funding and mental health provision (here in the UK, between 6-10% of the NHS budget is spent on mental health care with nearly half of all local health trusts reporting cuts in their budget in consecutive years between 2012 to 2016) which, while not a sexy subject for movies to cover, is still an important point to make. But the film is ambivalent as to whether Arthur is a sympathetic character or not so the film never really convinces you as to the strengths of its own argument. It shoe-horns in political statements but doesn't follow them up.
Should I watch it?
Joker is a bleak and nihilistic look at a failing society, a deranged loner and the arrogance of the ruling elite. Phillips has not just crafted a gripping and intelligent thriller that feels like a darker version of The Shawshank Redemption with its harrowing lead character but elicited one of the best performances of his career from Joaquin Phoenix who was always going to win Best Actor. It won't be for everybody's taste and it certainly stands out from any other superhero film you can think of - and not just because there isn't a superhero in sight. This is dark and adult and utterly unmissable.
Great For: fans of the character, Phillips' future career prospects, award shelves, anybody tired of the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Not So Great For: anyone suffering from mental health issues, the squeamish, clowns, socially awkward loners
What else should I watch?
Desperately playing catch-up with Marvel since they launched their highly successful MCU in 2008 with Iron Man, DC have found it hard going. 2013 saw the launch of their own Extended Universe, the DCEU, with Man Of Steel which unfortunately didn't find the same critical success as its Marvel counterparts. At the time of writing, the only film to really achieve critical praise was Wonder Woman which, if nothing else, beat Marvel to produce the first female-led superhero film as well as being a successful money-spinner for DC. To date, it's most successful film was Aquaman which took more than $1.1 billion at the box office but left most critics underwhelmed. It will be interesting to see how the success of Joker will affect the development of future projects at DC - will they stick to the same combined universe or deliver stand-alone products like this?
© 2020 Benjamin Cox