Film

Review: Joker

11 November 2019

One of the most highly anticipated films of the year, Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019) has cackled and danced into cinemas with a resounding BANG! This newest iteration of the clown menace has had a lot to live up to, with viewers wondering if Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal will join Heath Ledger’s The Dark Night (2008) performance as the stuff of legend, or if the movie will be another addition to the ‘miss’ pile of the DCEU’s hit-or-miss discography. Weeks before its theatrical debut, Joker has been the talk of the town. From standing ovations during the festival circuit to Phoenix being lauded for Oscar contention, the ratings for this film have been amazingly high. But the burning question we’re all wondering: is Joker as good as everyone is saying? 

Short answer: you bet it is! 

I guess you could stop reading now, since I’ve given you my verdict on the film. But! I have a lot more to say about the film and it’d be nice to have someone other than my mum hear me ramble about characterisation, film scores and costuming. So please sir, can I have some more (of your time)?

I want to start by first addressing two points of concern and controversy surrounding this film: the portrayal of mental illness and gun violence. Immediately, what sets apart Joker from previous cinematic iterations of the character is the large role mental illness plays in the man’s origin story. So much of his characterisation and the events that lead him to become the Joker are rooted in his mental health. Even attributes that fans would define as staples of representing the clown menace – such as an unnerving cackle and sickly physicality – are tied back to the psychological state of Arthur Fleck (the civilian identity of Joker before his dastardly rebirth). Psychologist appointments, Arkham Asylum, medication – these all end up having a hand, indirectly or directly, in Joker’s creation. It’s not a great image for the film to be presenting and understandably, the portrayal of a mentally ill individual turning to violence and murder has sparked outcry. As much as I was intrigued by and enjoyed discussing and ruminating on what exactly caused Arthur to become Joker, in the interests of better, more respectful and tactful representations of mental illness, I think the film could’ve done with drawing a clearer line between Arthur’s psychological state and the mindset of a mass murderer.      

Over the past few years, cases of gun violence, particularly mass shootings in the United States, have sparked fierce debate about the sorts of images and messages media should be presenting to the masses. Joker is the latest in a line of films that have come under fire for their potential to inspire shootings. Gratuitous violence isn’t a rarity in Hollywood’s releases each year. What makes Joker different, and a cause for concern, is that unlike the plethora of action heroes who turn their guns on thugs and clear-cut villains, Joker is an ostracised and unwell man lashing out against society. Against a system that has failed to support him. How many viewers will see themselves in him? More pressing, how many will be inspired by his actions? Personally, I can’t say that I completely agree with claims of the film sensationalising gun violence. I believe Joker himself sensationalised guns, fantasising about the harm he could inflict with such a weapon. But as for the film itself, I never got the sense that the filmmakers were condoning his actions or trying to dress them up prettily and gloss over their ethics. From start to finish, there is an uneasy mood to the movie. Despite positioning Joker as a victim and detailing the causes of his immorality, I maintained a feeling of dread and discomfort watching his transformation into the clown menace. And this is the key. The film wants you to feel a sense of wrongness. The haunting score, creepy clown motifs and jump-scares remind viewers periodically that this isn’t a rousing tale. This origin story isn’t about a man rising up to become something powerful. It’s about a man falling to darkness and dragging everyone – innocent or not – down with him. 

The concerns about how films like Joker are negatively portraying and influencing people are very real. However, despite the controversies surrounding this film, I wouldn’t caution anyone against watching it. I think this is one of those films where you need to watch it to form an opinion on it. If you have an inkling of interest, it’s worth a watch because what the film tries to say and do is fascinating. It does a lot right.             

And on that note, let’s get into the good stuff!

Of course, I have to start with Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. It’s the crux of this film. The immensely talented actor gives every bit of himself to this character. His laugh is uncomfortable, drawn-out, and sometimes seems even painful. It’s no stretch to imagine that echoing cackle haunting the streets of Gotham and putting everyone on edge. And then there’s his physique, which I never expected to be emphasised for this portrayal. There’s a scene in particular where Phoenix is hunched over a bench and the image of flesh stretched taut over a visible spine and ribs, and arms contorted to give the affect of a not-quite-right torso, is downright gruesome and fitting. Another aspect of the performance that I was pleasantly surprised by was how Phoenix’s Joker moves. There’s a theatricality to his physical movements. He runs in big, bounding steps as if he’s perpetually adorned in too-large clown shoes. He traverses space in either a controlled menace of a predator, an amble of someone just shy of snapping, or a lyrical finesse of a villain who is just as much a showman. 

But in an origin story where Joker is the protagonist, ergo the one we’re supposedly connecting with on an emotional level, an intriguing physical portrayal isn’t enough. When much of the film is about how Joker, or rather Arthur Fleck, has suffered at the hands of society, a performance of emotions is just as important as one of physique. Fortunately, a well-crafted script allows Phoenix to portray a multi-layered character who will, despite everything, have viewers feeling for him. Sure, you won’t be weeping for the guy or have your heartstrings tugged, but for the two hours you spend with Arthur Fleck, you’ll wince when life (or a bunch of truly awful pricks) knocks him to the ground and be keyed up on a fizzy cocktail of awe and anticipation when he has his big, dancing-on-the-stairs moment. In the lead up to watching this film, I questioned how a character like Joker could ever be made sympathetic, and in a way that wouldn’t take away from his villainy. But screenwriters Todd Phillips and Scott Silver have cleverly positioned Arthur/Joker as both victim and perpetrator of suffering. There is a causality in play to Joker’s chaos. Within the logic of the narrative, it makes sense why he turns out the way he does. Now, don’t be alarmed. It’s not to say that you’ll be agreeing with Joker’s actions. I don’t suddenly condone killing anyone who gets on my nerves after watching this film. The film is simply very effective in sequentially and causally connecting the events of this film and showing them to you through the eyes of Arthur/Joker, that his journey is credible. 

Normally, I’d consider the lack of prominent secondary characters a weakness to a film. However, as much as I’ve tried to apply this contention to Joker, I can’t quite stick with it. I think the reason Joker works so well is that it is, unapologetically, all about Joker. Secondary characters come and go throughout his journey and they do add layers of depth and alternative perspectives, but they don’t steal the show in any scene. Which is the way it should be for a film like this one. If Joker took an audience of movie-goers hostage to tell his tale, I think you’d end up with something very similar to this film. Think about it, this film reflects what a villain does when they monologue to a captured hero. They spin a tale of woe about how much they’ve suffered, how no one was ever there for them, and try to convince people that they’re actions are justified. If you interpret this film as what would happen if Joker was in charge of telling his story, the lack of prominent secondary characters makes sense. If Joker is going to regale you with his origin story, he will undoubtedly position himself as the star of the show. At the end of the day, this film is an exploration of how a man became the menace that is Joker, and each supporting character served their narrative purpose well while not stealing attention from the protagonist. It also helps that Phoenix’s portrayal is so gripping that you wouldn’t care that he’s the focal point of basically every scene. 

With the way I’ve been harking on, you’re probably wondering if the character of Joker is the only investing aspect of this movie. Worry not! There are plenty of other features that will make a cinephile giddy. For starters, the cinematography is just gorgeous. There are so many shots that are artfully composed. Joker’s colour and vivacity pops off the screen when contrasted with Gotham’s bleakness. Bird’s-eye-view scenery shots were included just for style, I’m sure, and I was all for them. The recurring image of the camera gazing up at Arthur/Joker on the staircase sandwiched between two buildings, awash in varying levels of daylight, spoke to my inner cinematographer each time. 

Costuming gets a special mention here despite Joker being the only character to have an attention-grabbing look, and that is purely because I loved his final transformation into the clown menace. I have to admit, when the initial set photos were released, showcasing Joker’s clown ensemble, I wasn’t convinced. I think the lack of purple threw me off. But having this vivid red, green and orange number, the work of costume designer Mark Bridges, revealed in the last third of the film, accompanied by elaborate clown makeup and a jaunty dance on some beautiful stairs (seriously, I can’t get enough of that staircase), was a true delight. 

Finally, I can’t not talk about the film score. Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir expertly captures the movie’s mood with her score. The haunting cries of string instruments create this visceral tension that keeps you on edge throughout the entire screening. You feel like a string being stretched slowly and steadily and you’re waiting for that SNAP! It’s only when the film is over does that tension break. I left the cinema giving this big exhalation of air and thinking, wow, that was an experience! 

Joker is unsettling, intense, shocking, riveting, and even funny at times. Sounds about right for this clown’s latest foray on the silver screen, don’t ya think? 

Joker is in cinemas now.                               


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