Sometimes a film is so stirring that it should be required viewing. This is how best to describe Todd Phillip’s (The Hangover, Old School) latest film, Joker. After watching this film, which has gotten much press since its release at TIFF earlier this fall, there is so much to unpack it is almost an exercise in futility, but I will attempt it.
First there is the fact that it has divided film fans and critics…greatly. On Rotten Tomatoes it has a low score of 69% from critics and 89% from movie goers. On IMDb is has an average rating of 8.8/10, earned from movie goers. Makes you scratch your head, no? What is it about Joker which makes fans love it while critics pan it? Let’s look at it from that angle, shall we?
First of all, I would have bet it would have been the opposite with fans hating it and critics love it. Comic book fans are notoriously tough. Tough to please as they are typically rabid. Any slight misstep and they call you out. Somehow though they seem to love this. Even though it is most certainly not your traditional approach to this character. Definitely breaks ground.
Here Todd Phillips along with his lead actor Joaquin Phoenix attempt an interpretation of probably the best known villain from the Batman mythology – The Joker. Stacked up against this ambitious undertaking is the already lauded performance by the late Heath Ledger. Undaunted they forged forward and created something amazing. I was truly blown away.
Pretty much invisible to people around him, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix – Walk the Line, Gladiator) floats through life. He works as a clown for hire for a booking company specializing in clowns and lives with his mother (Frances Conroy – from television’s Six Feet Under). Without a romantic partner or even any friends, Arthur is pretty much on his own. His personality seems offputting to most, including the guys he works with.
Arthur, who is an aspiring stand up comedian, has a condition which causes him to laugh loudly at the most inappropriate times. He has mental health issues which he goes to speak to a woman, who seems to be some kind of social worker, in order to get his medication for. She does not really care and he knows this. It is a farce. No mental health care is happening in Gotham City.
Gotham City has become a rather chaotic place, with crime and violence happening everywhere. It has become so bad that successful businessman Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen – The Dark Knight Rises, The Shallows) has decided to run for mayor. Arthur is familiar with Thomas Wayne because his mother used to work for him a long time ago and gets Arthur to mail letters to the millionaire for her. She believes that if he knew how desperate she and her son were that he would help them out.
Due to all the mayhem, suddenly at one visit to see the social worker, Arthur is told she can no longer see him as there have been cutbacks. He will now no longer get his medication for free. Which causes him to stop taking it. This sets off a downward spiral for Arthur which culminates in violence, death and insanity.
This is the origin story for Joker. A standalone one. One which has been created by Phillips, as he not only directed the film, but also co-wrote the script. Dark, depressing and sad. Such is what created Joker. Out of Arthur.
Bottom line is that if Joaquin Phoenix does not win the Best Actor Oscar next year then the whole thing has to be relooked at. His performance is that good. He seems the obvious winner. Such a brave and tricky turn that I cannot picture many other actors being able to handle such a role. Phoenix is totally dedicated to his character. He even made me forget Ledger’s portrayal…for a little while. You cannot take your eyes off of him even though you really want to. Look away. Like those in Arthur’s life.
Applause should also go out to Todd Phillips. This is his most fully formed work. From the story to the score to the visuals everything is astonishing. Gripping. An emotional rollercoaster and we just hang on for the wild ride. Far as you can get from your typical comic book based film. A completely original piece which is increasingly rare nowadays.
Affecting stuff. Not easy to watch. My overwhelming feeling was sadness. You are uncomfortable while watching for most of it. Violent. Certainly won’t be appealing to some because of this. But, as opposed to what others have said, this is not a glorification of violence. It really shows the price. The human cost. Disturbing. Brutal. Bleak. Unforgettable. An interpretation of the psychological effect of violence on humans. How damaging it is.
But totally transports us into this world. Created, but not that far away from the one we live in. Gotham City is not a real place or is it…just New York City? Gritty and realistic. Props goes out to cinematographer Lawrence Sher (Garden State, Godzilla: King of the Monsters), who brings us up close and personal to this dirty, grimy, in no way appealing world.
Really a warning to us about the direction which Phillips sees us going. Devolving. Ignoring those in need. Racist. Economically stratified. Rampant with mental health issues. Rioting populations.