Sunday, October 6, 2019

Joker (2019)

In the midst of their slate of big-budget action-driven superhero films, Warner Bros. has released a, comparatively, low-budget character-driven film based on one of DC’s most iconic villains, the Joker. Giving the Joker his own film and making it a psychological thriller is rather fitting, but making it unconnected to the larger, and still-ongoing, DCEU is a bit of a gamble, if only due to the risk of confusing audiences about continuity. This risk seemed to pay off early, however, when it got an eight-minute standing ovation at the 76th Venice International Film Festival, where it also won the Golden Lion, the festival’s highest prize. After I saw the film in its opening weekend through a 35mm print, I walked away feeling like I generally agree with its praise, but there are certain elements that are not for everyone.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) works as a clown-for-hire and lives at home with his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), whom he has to care for, in Gotham City. He not only suffers from a disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, but also barely scrapes by in near poverty and clings onto reality through medication. As Gotham goes through a state of unrest, Arthur faces a series of increasingly greater setbacks that deteriorate his already fragile state until he’s pushed over the edge and completes his transformation into the Joker.

Joker features an interesting take on Gotham, drawing inspiration from 1970s/80s New York and all of the issues it went through at the time. From garbage strikes to rampant crime and civil unrest, the city is a powder keg waiting to go off and plays a large role in shaping Joker as a character and the influence he has on the city in return. The film also does a great job in staying in line with this time period, down to having a Johnny Carson-type talk show host, a lack of contemporary technology, a background reference to Pong and the use of an older Warner Bros. logo at the beginning.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is slowly driven into madness until he becomes the Joker.

The film is well-cast, but the biggest standout is Joaquin Pheonix’s portrayal of the Joker. Comparisons to other Joker actors are inevitable, but while Heath Ledger is often used as the benchmark, Phoenix has a unique take on the character that sets him apart. Rather than a criminal mastermind or violent anarchist, Joker is an already mentally ill man driven to insanity by society’s general apathy towards his plight. Phoenix’s performance gives a deep look into what it’s like to have deep psychological issues and shows Arthur at times in a sympathetic light, but once Arthur starts to fight back against those who wronged him, however, he becomes a genuinely disturbing character whose simple but gory kills make him difficult to root for.

Since Joker is a character-driven film, the story is comprised entirely of Joker’s character arc. While easy to follow for the most part, it’s also well-written and complex, with a very grounded and realistic version of the character. With that said, the way the film concludes suggests a rather intriguing take on the Batman story that would be interesting to see explored in a potential sequel, should they decide to pursue it.

With a combination of a well-written script and powerful acting, Joker is a film worthy of its praise and is a unique comic book movie that I would recommend people go see. However, the film is very intense, due in part to the dark and painfully realistic portrayal of Arthur’s growing insanity and the fact that the film doesn’t shy away from onscreen gore. As such, it won’t be for everyone and with its well-deserved R-rating, it most certainly isn’t for children.

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