JOKER

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Todd Phillips

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert de Niro, Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz, Brett Cullen, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, Douglas Hodge, Glenn Fleshler, Leigh Gill, Dante Pereira-Olson, Sharon Washington, Brian Tyree Henry.

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (2019)

Batman’s arch nemesis The Joker has been portrayed in the past by the likes of Caesar Romero in the camp classic 60s tv series that starred the late Adam West, Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s darker vision of the caped crusader from 1989, and given a more dangerous edge by Heath Ledger in his Oscar winning turn in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). But while Batman’s backstory and origins are familiar and have often been told, less is known about the origins of the Joker. There is no definitive origins story for the iconic character. This film aims to fill that void.

In fleshing out the backstory and formative experiences that shaped the iconic psychopath, Joker sits comfortably in the cinematic universe of Martin Scorsese, sitting somewhere between the ugly violence, urban decay and sleaze of Taxi Driver and the cruel, uncomfortable humour and sociopathic protagonist of The King Of Comedy. It’s not surprising that both of these films were a huge influence on filmmaker Todd Phillips here.

Phillips is better known for his crass comedies like The Hangover trilogy, but here he taps into something darker and more disturbing. And if you thought that Nolan’s vision of Gotham City was rather dark, wait until you get a look at Phillips’ bleak picture of a city in decay. Gotham City is broken and in the midst of an extended garbage strike. Rubbish is piling up on the streets which are being overrun by rats. You can almost smell the fetid atmosphere. Kudos to the lensing of regular cinematographer Lawrence Sher (The Hangover, etc), who captures this blighted environment and gives the material the gritty look and feel of many classic 80s crime films.

We meet Arthur Fleck (played by Joaquin Phoenix, from The Master, etc), a pathetic, sad part time clown and aspiring stand up comedian. He is a deeply trouble young man who suffers from a neurosis that causes him to erupt into uncontrollable fits of laughter, often at the most inappropriate times, which lands him in trouble with people with little understanding or sympathy. Arthur lives at home in a rather cramped and shabby apartment with his ailing and bedridden mother Penny (Frances Conroy), who used to work a stately Wayne manor before she was fired and hospitalised. Arthur and Penny enjoy watching the Murray Franklin Show, a late night tv talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, in a role that pays homage to his King Of Comedy). Arthur dreams of one day appearing on the show.

A series of events puts pressure on Arthur, who fragile emotional and mental state is pushed to the limits and he bgins to unravel. A group of thugs beat him up and steal his advertising sign, he is fired from his job, he makes an inauspicious stab at stand-up comedy. And he shoots three obnoxious Wall Street financial types on a subway train, which makes him a hero to some for tackling the greedy corporate culture, but also sees him reviled as some sort of twisted vigilante. The only bright spot in his lonely and miserable life is the burgeoning relationship with pretty neighbour Sophie (Zazie Beetz, from Deadpool 2, etc), but even she feels uncomfortable with his creepy and obsessive behaviour.

Hildur Dudnadottir’s pounding score adds to this growing sense of unease and escalating tension. Phillips and co-script writer Scott Silver (The Fighter, etc) build up the tension to breaking point, and when it explodes into violence it hits with the same visceral gut punch of early Scorsese. Some parts are not for the squeamish.

Phoenix (who lost 52 pounds to play the character) gives a tour de force performance here that ranks as one of his best as he immerses himself in the character and his troubled psyche. His intense and physical performance is full of neurotic twitches and idiosyncratic maniacal touches. But he also makes his Arthur a sympathetic figure, a clearly unwell and vulnerable man who has been badly treated and let down by the broken system that is supposed to help him. Eventually the abused victim turns aggressor with predictably ugly results.

De Niro is fine and brings gravitas and the weight of his cinematic canon to his smaller role as the affable talk show host. The cast also features Brett Cullen who plays Thomas Wayne, and Douglas Hodge as the loyal butler Alfred.

Joker serves up a subversive, edgy and uncomfortably raw take on an iconic character, and although this is meant to be a stand-alone film, there are many touchstones that connect the material to the familiar mythology of the Batman films and the DC universe. This is a controversial and confronting film that will prove to be divisive because of its themes and subject matter.

★★★★

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