Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Joker ★★★★☆

There’s not a lot to say about Joker that hasn’t already been said. Arguably one of the most controversial and divisive films of the decade, the film has sparked great debate since even before its release regarding its portrayal of mental health, violence and the relationship between the two. There have been many reported walk-outs during screenings across the world, and the US military issued a memo regarding public safety and to remain incredibly vigilant in the wake of the film’s release. Now that public interest is beginning to wane and every other critic from here to Timbuktu has shared their two cents, let’s take one final look at Joker.

The personification of the ‘forever alone’ meme, failed comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) seeks connection as he walks the streets of Gotham City. Struggling with an involuntary laughing condition, Fleck is the victim of almost constant abuse from the people of Gotham, with his only solace found in his run-down apartment that he shares with his ailing mother. Isolated, bullied and disregarded by society, Fleck begins a slow descent into madness as he transforms into the criminal mastermind known as Joker.

Firstly, and certainly most importantly, there are no words to describe Phoenix’s performance here. A masterpiece of acting doesn’t even come close. On top of losing 52lbs for the role, Phoenix gives absolutely everything he has to the intense and disturbing performance. This is his film through-and-through, as he appears in almost every single frame – and commands the audience’s attention for every second of his descent into madness. I’ve been a fan of Phoenix’s for years, and this feels like the role he was born to play. If he doesn’t walk away with the Best Actor Academy Award, there is something seriously wrong with the world.

Visually, the film is absolutely stunning. The dirty, cold Gotham City is a living, breathing setting for the film and is as much a character as Joker himself. Never has the crime-ridden city felt so alive and so dangerous on-screen, aided by cinematographer Lawrence Sher and a phenomenal foreboding score from Hildur Guðnadóttir. Todd Phillips’ direction is pretty magnificent too – not bad for the guy who directed The Hangover trilogy. The pacing is intense and maintains a steady sense of dread, culminating in a harrowing sequence on the chat show of Murray Franklin (a great little performance by Robert De Niro).

But Joker isn’t perfect. While clearly highly influenced by Martin Scorsese’s early work (particularly Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy), the film does often go beyond homage and feel almost derivative. Some of the film’s potential shocks were lessened by the fact that I felt like I’d seen them before in those earlier (and superior) films from Marty. Furthermore, some of the film’s criticisms regarding the portrayal of violence are earned. While the film doesn’t applaud Fleck’s actions of murder as he transforms into the super-villain, it equally fails to condemn them. We follow his violent rise and transformation but the film never stops to question if his actions are ok (they’re obviously not). There are other issues with the film, but these will vary depending on the viewer. I went to see it a second time before this review with a friend of mine, who absolutely adored it and could find no fault. That’s the magic of cinema.

While Joker isn’t the ‘film of the year’ or ‘masterpiece’ some are labelling it, it’s certainly going to be up there in the top 5. This intense and upsetting film is one of the most realistic depictions of madness and murder I have ever witnessed, and I went away from the film feeling not elated but disturbed. It was a harrowing and uncomfortable two hours, with a truly masterful (and horrifying) third act. I applaud all involved for getting this film made and released by such a big studio – it is really just an indie character study disguised as a comic book blockbuster. But it is all the better for it.

Sam Love

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