A lot has been said leading up to the release of Joker, with some of the most common arguments surrounding whether the film was necessary and whether there would be fatigue around yet another portrayal of the Clown Prince. The trailer didn’t reveal much and left audiences a little perplexed. But after predominantly receiving positive reviews after the film festival season it’s now set for wider public release, and the box office crunch time looms. Can Warner Brothers finally steer the DC stable of characters back into successful waters?
The Todd Phillips directed and co-written screenplay with Scott Silver introduces us to Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). A failed stand-up comedian, still living at home in a run down apartment caring for his frail mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and struggling to hold down a job as a clown entertainer. They spend their evenings watching a talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) and Arthur fantasises about being a guest. He’s being treated for mental illness with a shopping list of medications but courtesy of government funding cuts his therapy sessions and access to those drugs have now dried up. The city he lives in is falling further into a societal divide, as the rich get richer and poor end up poorer.
The film is far from the bright and colourful comic book movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s heavier and bleaker than previous DC film iterations of those comic characters where even they had momentary bursts of levity. The stand-alone nature of this origin story laser focuses its attention on Arthur, and the day by day deterioration of his mental health. A man who suffers from uncontrollable fits of laughter due to a previous traumatic head injury. A man obsessed with finding the father he never had in a celebrity. A man who is being beaten down both literally and metaphorically by all those around him. There is only so much he can take and when he breaks, it’s terrifyingly easy to turn to insanity. Interestingly, here he isn’t the architect of anarchy, as is often portrayed in the source material. Arthur becomes merely a spark to the embers already burning in Gotham.
Phoenix is hypnotic to watch, his bony physique often on show, his laughter fits are laced with agony. He embodies a man that’s damaged but as the film reaches its climax he embraces the madness with a sense of joy and calm. The cinematography by Lawrence Sher is intimate and keeps Phoenix framed in the centre. The location shots are also dimly lit, or grimey or dingy which adds to the dreary ambience. Whilst the music by Icelandic composer Hildur Guonadottir goes from haunting to overpowering on all the right beats.
The less interesting, potentially damaging aspects of the film are spoilery and incorporate the use of familiar characters from the DC comics universe. A shoe-horned in scene near the end to purposefully link it to the source material should’ve been cut. There’s a shot that too closely resembles an iconic Heath Ledger Joker moment that could also have been cut. There’s even a really fascinating twist that could have been explored or made for a great deviation from the canon but they just drop it. Also the supporting cast are very much relegated to being that. There is never much for them to do, other than serve the purpose of revolving around Phoenix.
Joker is the sort of movie that will be divisive, evident already in some of the reviews by critics. The momentary lapses where the film insists on retaining some of its source history are an annoyance but not totally detrimental. For fans of the comics, this is definitely not a comic book movie. Instead, Phillips has strived to create an origin for a comic character that is rooted very much in real world possibility. It’s a thought provoking examination of how easily somebody can slip over the edge when pushed by external factors.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Joker is out in Australian cinemas from 3 October 2019 through Roadshow Pictures.