5 Oct 2019

Screen Time: JOKER

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham
Director: Todd Phillips
Runtime: 121 minutes
Certificate: 15
Release Date: 4th October 2019

Matt C: Within the weeks leading up to its release, Joker seemed to morph from critically acclaimed award winner to a movie perceived to be dangerous, irresponsible and morally bankrupt. The backlash reached fever pitch during the final days before its debut with any slightly controversial utterings from the cast and crew being pounced upon, interspersed with reports of undercover cops being sent to screenings and cinemas refusing entry to anyone attending on their own. The finished product reveals itself to be unworthy of any of the hysteria whipped up by media outlets eager for clicks; it's a dark, nihilistic film that has ambitions it never quite reaches, but no sensible person will mistake it as a work of art that could cause any sort of societal collapse or inspire legions of copycats to take to the streets. It makes for a lot of inflammatory articles but the worst its going to do is inspire an overabundance of Joker cosplayers at upcoming comics conventions.

Taking a character that has generally been resistant to any definitive origin is always a gamble, but the Joker, like Batman, has withstood countless interpretations over the years, some more successful than others. Arguably revealing where he came from makes the Joker less potent, less mythic, but this film wants us to see the power inherent in his transformation, suggesting that knowing his roots makes him far more terrifying. Encompassing various hot button topics is one way to go about this, but the film's attempts to act as a social commentary often fall flat, the lack of subtlety neutering the effectiveness. The idea of a society that routinely ignores the dispossessed, the disenfranchised and the downtrodden creating its own monsters is a strong one, although not exactly original, and for all its efforts to tackle contemporary subjects (the One Percent, ignorance of mental health issues) it lacks the depth to translate these into empathy for the titular character (and it's always going to be tricky to create empathy for someone who eventually becomes the Dark Knight's greatest nemesis, the Clown Prince of Crime).
This shouldn't diminish Joaquin Phoenix's striking central performance; he's one of the great actors of his generation and a magnetic presence on the screen, the slightest change of expression speaking volumes about what's crackling behind his eyes. His Arthur Fleck is a deeply disturbed individual but for all Phoenix's brilliance as a performer, his journey to his destiny never feels entirely natural; because we know where it's all heading, and because it has to head there, a lot of the narrative feels forced, the ferocious episodes of violence never having an entirely solid grounding to make them seem inevitable.

The film owes a great debt to Martin Scorsese - his touchstone films of the 1970s and '80s in particular - but this was baked into the genesis of the project, the filmmaker's name routinely dropped into the conversation ever since it was announced. The presence of Robert De Niro as a talk show host clearly points to King Of Comedy and the intense physicality of Phoenix's performance is loosely reminiscent of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, but in the end Joker doesn't get close to plumbing the psychological depths of Scorsese's best work where tortured souls possess a rawness that is enveloping as it is compelling. Technically it's an impressive production, the cinematography capturing the strange beauty of Gotham's derelict mean streets, with Hildur Guðnadóttir's unsettling score constantly lending a disconcerting edge to the proceedings. The supporting cast are fine but are obviously overshadowed by Phoenix, which is by necessity and design. Elements of the Batman mythos do feel shoehorned in though, and rather clumsily when certain iconography is employed - it makes you wonder whether Joker would have been more successful in making its points if it wasn't about, well, the Joker.
It's hardly the incel-baiting tract some of the pre-release discourse had us believe but ultimately it's too superficial to really make a substantial impact, the dangerous elements always tempered by the need to adhere to established lore, and while it's certainly worth watching for Phoenix if nothing else, it's likely to be viewed historically as an interesting diversion in the cinematic superhero cycle rather than one that will substantially change the established paradigm. 6/10

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