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Review: Joker (2019)

Joker (2019)

Directed by: Todd Phillips

Premise: Based upon the character from DC’s Batman comic books. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally unstable performance artist who works as a clown. Impoverished and marginalized by society, Arthur begins lashing out.

What Works: Joker is an audacious repurposing of the raw materials of the comic book genre. This film is comparable to Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and John Gardener’s novel Grendel which retold classic stories (Hamlet and Beowulf, respectively) from the point of view of a minor or supporting character. The purpose of doing that is to reveal a new vantage point on the story and make the audience rethink their assumptions about it. Joker does that by flipping the perspective. Most Batman films take place from the top looking down. Bruce Wayne is a wealthy businessman and much of the action of Batman films is located in places of power like city hall. Joker’s point of view starts at the bottom looking up. The story takes place in the gutter where Arthur Fleck lives in poverty with his sickly mother, a former housekeeper at the Wayne estate, and he ekes out a living as a clown. He’s mentally unwell and his social services are cut off by austerity measures. Fleck begins losing his grip on sanity and he eventually emerges as the villain we recognize from other Batman adventures. By flipping the narrative this way, Joker suggests that one of the great villains of American fiction is in fact a product of a society that abuses vulnerable people. This Joker is not a social aberration; he’s the logical conclusion of society’s indifference. That’s a subversive suggestion in a franchise and a genre in which villains are typically just evil. The sick city that produces this villain is rendered through visceral filmmaking. The production design is filthy and rotten; viewers can practically smell the garbage and feel the dampness of the city streets. The settings are complemented by Lawrence Sher’s washed out cinematography and Hildur Guðnadóttir brooding music score that hints at pain and madness. All that filmmaking exists around Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in the lead role. Phoenix’s Joker is about as far from Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight as is possible. Ledger’s Joker was a cool and seductive bad boy whereas Phoenix’s Joker is awkward and pathetic, the kind of guy you would cross the street to avoid. And Phoenix is brilliant in the role. Everything from his voice to his posture is perfectly calibrated and Phoenix is simultaneously menacing and pitiful.
What Doesn’t: Joker channels early Martin Scorsese films, namely Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy as well as vigilante pictures of that period like the original Death Wish. The filmmakers aren’t coy about this – Taxi Driver and King of Comedy star Robert De Niro is cast in Joker in an obvious nod to those pictures. But Joker leans so heavily upon its influences that the film feels like it’s made of reused parts. This is a deliberate strategy on the part of the filmmakers; Joker shuns anything that resembles the comic book movie genre. But some elements of its source are unavoidable and when characters or places from the Batman universe are referenced they come across out of place.

Bottom Line: Joker is a startling and unnerving film but it’s also brilliantly made and showcases a great performance by Joaquin Phoenix. Although it recalls a lot of earlier movies, Joker subverts prevailing ideas about heroism and villainy while revealing a new way forward for comic book adaptations. 

Episode: #770 (October 13, 2019)