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Psycho therapy
With nothing on his CV to suggest a film of this kind was brewing, writer/director Todd Phillips delivers an extremely effective psychological breakdown of a man whose brutal past inevitably casts him in the role of a tortured clown. Camus wipes off JOKER’s greasepaint…
 
  "Isn’t it good to have these discussions about these movies, about violence? Why is that a bad thing if the movie does lead to a discourse about it? What’s outstanding to me in this discourse in this movie is how easily the far left can sound like the far right when it suits their agenda. It’s really been eye-opening for me."
  Director Todd Phillips, Washington Post*

 

In his journal (replete with pornographic photos cut from magazines, personal observations and dubious jokes) Arthur Fleck writes, "The worst thing about having a mental illness is people expecting you to behave as if you haven't." This fascinating insight seems to be enormously clear-headed given the specific mental illnesses Arthur suffers from which are never identified but to control them he is well medicated. We know he's not right. But then 'not right' is hardly a diagnosis. The idea of being able to compartmentalise mental illness is a curious one. How brave or foolhardy of the medical profession was it to diagnose conditions based on assumedly repeatable psychological behaviour? Is that behaviour neatly contained in a simple definition? I mean take 'Narcissistic Personality Disorder'. How can you precisely define what this is and how can sufferers be diagnosed or even treated? Oh, wait. There's that ridiculous comb-over on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC. There's your test case. OK, I'll give you that one. But like zoology as an academic subject, knowledge or assumed knowledge of the animals has to be subjectively interpreted and then supported by peer review. Trump is such a classic case that everyone can agree that his psychological failings warrant a defined name. Or eight. But we throw terms around like schizophrenia. What does this actually mean? Where are its limits diagnostically? If the subject has the inability to discern what's 'real', hears voices, sees delusions and behaves abnormally… OK. So it's safe to assume that Arthur is at the very least schizophrenic. He lives in a dark internal world and for two hours, we live in it with him. It doesn't help that the external world is also dark, rubbish strewn and perpetually grey or raining. We're animals and affected by the seasons like any other animal.

It's Gotham City in 1981. Tensions are rising as the city's infrastructure is falling apart. Arthur works as a freelance clown for whatever organisations or businesses need one. Right. Still racking my mind for the answer to what kind of places and events would employ clowns; hospitals and birthday parties, fair enough. After he's beaten up for trying to retrieve a stolen sign, a co-worker hands him a revolver with which to protect himself. Even in his clown agency he is seen as something of an outcast with only a dwarf colleague (accepted nomenclature apparently. It was either that or 'little person') showing an ounce of compassion. Boy, does that pay off! On a bus cheerfully entertaining a child, he starts to laugh uncontrollably. In one of many of the film's smart ideas, Arthur's manic unforced laughter is seen as a symptom of mental illness like cuss words spewed from those suffering from Tourette's Syndrome. He even has a handy informative business card to give to people explaining his problem so they can cut him some slack. Once the revolver falls from his clothes entertaining a children's cancer ward, he's on borrowed time. One of Arthur's cackles reminded me of comedian (a real one) Stewart Lee's uncompromising impression of the Richard 'the hamster' Hammond's laugh from his appearances on Top Gear. It's not pretty. Arthur looks after his elderly mother and idolises (and fantasizes about being accepted by) a Johnny Carson inspired character, TV's chat show host Murray Franklin. Attacked on a subway by wealthy socialites, Arthur fights back killing all three of his tormentors with his gun… And so, sans medication (cutbacks in social services) he starts his descent into real madness as the murders kick start a wide-ranging class war…

Arthur loses control on a bus

Being as old as I am, I should never be surprised that the people of the world have not necessarily seen all the movies I have. The generational nature of life (whoah, profound or what?) means that my son can think that all my cinematic references come from The Simpsons. It's always a pleasure to disabuse him of that by showing him the actual myriad films Matt Groening's show is forever referencing. So now we have Todd Phillips' Joker, which, if I was sixteen, may well have had the same effect on me as Taxi Driver actually did have when I was eighteen. The film unavoidably feels like King of Comedy and Taxi Driver have been put into a 21st Century DNA splicer. It's so odd that Ad Astra felt so much like Apocalypse Now. What's going on? At least these 70s movies are bloody great ones. We must be grateful that although the character of the Joker is well known (and 79 years old) Joker the movie is such a powerful and, arguably, original work, it's something that's sorely lacking in today's marketplace. So it gets my vote for that aspect alone. It's certainly a film born of its time with social disenchantment to the fore and people celebrating a clown prince as their de facto leader. America, please come back to us.

I once attended one of my son's weekend acting workshops many years ago. In it, his fellow young actors were entrusted with the roles of playing serfs to the visiting parents, acolytes who would presume to do their bidding, obsequiously bowing and fawning in supplication to us as we moved around the hall. It was excruciatingly embarrassing. I cannot remember feeling so uncomfortable (all power to the students who made me feel that way). In essence the character of Arthur Fleck almost has that same quality. When he does his early stand-up, the jokes he manages to get out are painfully embarrassing forced out between his bouts of uncontrollable hysterics. Intentionally cribbed or not, this scene ends with one of British comedian Bob Monkhouse's most famous jokes which is actually perfect for Fleck… "When I was a little boy and told people I was going to be a comedian, everyone laughed at me. Well, no one's laughing now." The last line is almost a threat. It worked a treat. In terms of performance, this kind of emoting is always on the razor's edge. If the audience suspect for one second, the performance is worked too hard for, the illusion is broken. It's like early Jim Carey movies. They drove me nuts because I could see the efforts behind the gurning and it just felt so forced. But other people loved it so what do I know? Joaquin Phoenix performs some dance-like body movements that feel almost contorted. His body (with I believe a significant shedding of body weight) reveals his left shoulder jutting out alarmingly while his ribs pressing through his skin emphasises his weight loss. If it's make-up, it's great make up. He is shirtless a lot of the time so that awkwardness and otherness is on display front and centre. Phoenix is never less than utterly convincing as an unloved, psychotic, delusional and very broken man. It's a masterclass of thespianic immersion. An Oscar nomination is pretty much guaranteed. On the supporting acting front, we must acknowledge Robert De Niro as talk-show host Murray essentially playing the Jerry Lewis character in King of Comedy to Phoenix's Rupert Pupkin. He's suitably oleaginous and quite insufferably smug. Frances Conroy convincingly plays Arthur's ageing mother, a character that is central to Arthur's disintegration. And there's Deadpool 2's Zazie Beetz as Sophie, a single mother and a neighbour of Arthur's. Her affectionate though cynical portrayal provides one of the only views of Arthur that an audience can latch on to. In her scenes, she plays the audience's eyes. And even then those eyes are unreliable.

The comedian begins the transformation into the Joker

Acting is a curious profession. You have to have absolute trust in your director and as an actor you must be prepared and even strongly invited to fail. Only at those rarefied heights can you reach the truth all great actors strive for. Failures are the steps up to those heights. Phoenix is mesmeric as Arthur and never puts a foot (in those big clown shoes) wrong. He is significantly aided by intelligent direction that seems to flow around Phoenix's contortions like oil in an organic engine. Often Phillips' star is allowed to push at the very edges of frame and the camera almost seductively follows Phoenix's smooth moves. I also loved when shooting near or toward mirrors, the camera angle is not 'smart ass CGI getting rid of reflections of the crew' but just at the angle where you can believe the crew are just out of sight. That's old-school filmmaking but very welcome.

Another area in which Joker excels is its score and choice of well known popular music. There are no surprises tonally in Hildur Guðnadóttir's superb, mesmeric and unnerving cello score but its power is unleashed at exactly the right times throughout the narrative. And a movie called Joker should be all about the timing. Wasn't surprised to see her credit as cello soloist on three Denis Villeneuve films and Alejandro G. Iñárritu's The Revenant with a score by Japanese favourite Ryuichi Sakamoto. From memory, the cello is absolutely dominant in this score as it is with Joker. She also composed the music for the rather superb recent Sky series Chernobyl much as I detest heaping praise on anything to do with the 'Dirty Digger'. Her exquisite mournful playing conveys essentially Arthur's inner thoughts and that's a dark and slippery slope to be sure. The first real-world music we hear aside from Sinatra's 'That's Life', the theme to the talk show is, of all things, Sondheim's 'Send in the Clowns'. The fact that this tragic loss of love song was crooned by the three drunken thugs that accost Arthur on the subway is fascinating to me because how would these boys know the lyric? Sondheim fans are not known for their violence. The most surprising pop song inclusion is Gary Glitter's 'Rock and Roll Part 2'. The filmmakers must have been aware that the song fell out of favour sharply after Glitter's child sex abuse charges as it was often used to get crowds going at American sport events. Perhaps its tainted nature was exactly what Phillips was going for as he has full suited and made-up Arthur dance down the long stairwell moving deftly to its hypnotic rhythm. I got an extra frisson from this choice as it was one of my favourite singles growing up. Just glad I didn't grow up anywhere near Gary.

Noted critic and multi-tweeter Anne Billson said "Every single beat in Joker is predictable – and has been done better elsewhere & with more humour, humanity, insight, irony etc." While her point is valid, I refer back to my point about our own movie pasts. We are seasoned film aficionados with sharp antennae for cliché and homage (French for stealing). Younger moviegoers do not necessarily have the backlog of films to compare it to and so it may move them in the same way Taxi Driver inspired us. That doesn't absolve any filmmaker from cribbing ideas. Using insanity to tap into urban alienation and teenage angst is certainly nothing new in film. I just think that Joker is another in the genre that's well worth seeing for Phoenix alone. As someone else said in a review, you didn't even need the DC comic connection but perhaps it could not have been marketed as well without it. I enjoyed Joker in as much as you can enjoy watching a man descend into madness. Is it a substantial piece of cinema, seen in a week Martin Scorsese brushes Marvel movies off his lapel as theme parks not cinema? Go and decide for yourself.

P.S. God, Guðnadóttir's score is deliciously unnerving. I wrote this entire review with it loud and on repeat. Talk about mood altering substances.

 


* https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/09/26/todd-phillips-joker-outrage-culture-gun-violence-critics/

Joker poster
Joker

USA | Canada 2019
122 mins
directed by
Todd Phillips
produced by
Bradley Cooper
Todd Phillips
Emma Tillinger Koskoff
written by
Todd Phillips
Scott Silver
cinematography
Lawrence Sher
editing
Jeff Groth
music
Hildur Guðnadóttir
production design
Mark Friedberg
starring
Joaquin Phoenix
Robert De Niro
Zazie Beetz
Frances Conroy
Brett Cullen
Shea Whigham
Bill Camp

UK distributor
Warner Bros Entertainment UK Ltd
UK release date
4 October 2019
review posted
6 October 2019

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