Joker (2019) – Film Review
Director: Todd Phillips
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz
by Roger Crow / @RogerCrow
Every few years there comes one of those films that taps into public unrest. Movies like Death Wish and Falling Down touch a chord with the masses who have had enough of being treated badly by society, lied to by advertising, or a mix of both. The latest is Joker, a Trojan horse of a film which for the most part is a mix of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.
It’s also a study of mental illness, and hugely affecting it is too. Little wonder Joaquin Phoenix won the Oscar and Bafta for his performance as Arthur Fleck. Afflicted by a condition which makes him laugh instead of cry, this master stroke forms the backbone of the movie. On the subject of which, Phoenix’s spine also steals part of the film. His emaciated form is one of the most troubling aspects. Like Christian Bale in The Machinist, there’s a sense that Phoenix overdid it on the method front; his carcass of a body being a worrying indication on the state of Fleck’s mind.
Set in 1981, it offers us a hellish vision of Gotham City. Mutant rats and crime have swept through the place like a plague, while government cuts mean Fleck’s meds and treatment are severed.
Aspiring comedian Fleck cares for his ailing mother in a decrepit apartment and lives a shell of a life. His romance with an attractive neighbour (Zazie Beetz) offers us a ray of hope in Arthur’s gloomy world, while his obsession with a chat show host (Robert DeNiro) paves the way for an inevitable appearance on said programme.
Analysts have no doubt had a field day stripping away the influence and layers of Todd Phillips’ movie. Yes, it owes a debt to Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s landmark graphic novel ‘The Killing Joke’, but the tone and style of this may feel like it’s absorbed many other films. The soundtrack, featuring old classics like ‘Smile’ and ‘That’s Life’ give it a timeless quality, while that iconic shot of Joker dancing on steps has ensured the film itself has carved itself a niche in the bedrock of Hollywood history.
Like Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance in The Dark Knight, this Joker is no laughing matter. Thankfully erasing the memory of Jared Leto’s turn in Suicide Squad, Phoenix has delivered one of those turns that deserved all the hype.
It’s testament to his performance and the screenplay that this found an audience beyond hardcore Batman fans like me. If you’re in an emotionally dark place, perhaps best to give it a wide berth as it’s powerful, disturbing stuff.
However, as comic book origin stories go, it’s one of the best committed to celluloid, even if we get yet another reminder of Bruce Wayne’s own inevitable path towards his Dark Knight destiny. Let’s hope we don’t have to endure yet another version of Thomas and Martha Wayne’s demise in Matt Reeves’ pending epic, The Batman.