REVIEW: Joker (Spoiler Free)

Wanna get nuts? Well, come on, let’s get nuts.

In 1980s Gotham city, failed stand-up comic, Arthur Fleck, descends on a path of madness after succumbing to the pressure of societal constraints.

The long awaited DC standalone supervillain feature, Joker, has finally made its way to cinemas and… it feels good. Truth be told, as of late, I have been leaving weeklong gaps in between my screenings of a film and my review of it. Why? Well, firstly, because I do get a little too busy from time to time, but secondly, and most importantly, I feel some films benefit more from a good amount of time bathing in my thoughts before I give a definitive opinion. Joker is not only an anticipated film for its place in the current crop of comic book adapted film canon but also for the fact it is, well, a seemingly respected film featuring an Oscar-worthy Joaquin Phoenix. So, of course, I felt there needed to be some time in between my viewing and my registered opinion. And what is my general opinion on Joker? Probably my favourite film of 2019.

Granted, this year has been quite a stinker for films in general. There really has not been much to generally pop (aside from maybe The House That Jack Built – wait, do I have a “thing” for serial killer films?) but with Joker I genuinely found joy that I haven’t had with a cinema experience in months. First of all, this was not what you would call a cliché comic book film. This was not in the style of Marvel or even an attempt to adopt the flavour of any past DC films. Joker was exclusively a film of its own merits. It shared more in common with Joaquin Phoenix films like You Were Never Really Here or edgy rebellious society bending films like Fight Club or American Psycho. To state the obvious, it was like a modern day Martin Scorsese film disguised with the name “Joker”.

Seriously, if you were to take out the name “Gotham” and replace the characters of the Wayne’s with a different rich family, Joker would have had nothing to do with DC Comics whatsoever. And although I can certainly see that as a problem for most people who may have suspected a psychological thriller chronicling the origin story of Batman’s greatest foe in the style of The Killing Joke, I just cannot see what is wrong with how this film turned out.

Joker called back to the old days of when a film adaptation was purely an adaptation and not just a retelling. Joker took the ideas and concepts of the comics, evolved them and blended them into something new – something appropriate to the visual medium of filmmaking. And sure, a straight up retelling of some of the Joker’s comic book origins could have also worked, but using the character as a basis to tell an original story in ode of Scorsese and the grimy character studies of the 1970s and 1980s was somewhat of a genius move.

The eerie complexion of Gotham city like the burst sewer mains of 1980s Manhattan, nostalgically evoked horrors of Taxi Driver. The awkward society that flooded and drowned the city in deceit and hardships recalled the insanities of The King of Comedy. I never thought Todd Phillips, director of The Hangover or Old School, could be capable of a motion this endearing.

In ways, I could see Joker suffering flack from entertaining direction and storytelling a bit too similar to that of Scorsese’s, to the point it was derivative. In a roundabouts way, Phillips could have done with a more distinctive style of his own, other than just piggy backing of Scorsese’s. I like to think the film’s stylings were only in ode to Scorsese (and I genuinely believe they were) but at times it did just feel a little too derivative and not specific to Phillips. Again though… I can forgive all that negative for how perfectly Joker executed its target style and delivered its hard pressing thematic messages.

(Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros 2019)

A topical film, indeed. Joker, in its most distilled form, was a film about what happens when society fails an individual. The film is about recognition and the search for attention. Arthur is a man who gets beaten down over and over again until he is forced to smile at his misfortune. In many ways, the character of Joker in this film has more in common with Watchmen‘s The Comedian rather than the traditional Joker.

Now, I could talk more about Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, but I feel those two topics have done the rounds an ample amount of times at this point. Talking about Joker in relation to those two cinema classics would, at this stage, be derivative, so instead I would like to turn your attention to how I feel this film relates highly to The Myth of Sisyphus.

Albert Camus once depicted the legend of Sisyphus as a man punished to an eternity of pushing a boulder uphill only for the boulder to fall back downhill whenever Sisyphus would reach the summit – an endless cycle. In Joker, we consistently saw Arthur climbing stairs to his apartment after long days of trauma and pain. Camus connected Sisyphus’ climb as a metaphor for the modern conditions of society, enslaved in jobs and tasks so meaningless and yet unescapable. Similarly, I felt this applied to Arthur as an embodiment of society, in general. A man failed by the world around him and subjected to a torturous punishment of existential dread.

Yet, Camus also theorised that it was in the moments of Sisyphus’ descent down the mountain to retrieve the boulder that the fallen hero found joy in the absurdity of life. In these moments, Sisyphus experienced freedom to observe life for what it truly was – a meaningless joke. Funnily enough, the only time in Joker we saw Arthur descend the stairs was towards the end of the film when he had fully embodied the name, look and thought patterns of the Joker – dancing, appropriately in clown make-up. Now yes, this could just be a metaphor for Arthur descending into madness, but I could not help think, in retrospect, that this was the moment Arthur finally saw life as it is – a meaningless joke.

There are many interpretations of Joker and plenty that could be deciphered alongside my own. In fact, I believe the pool of themes and thoughts in Joker is bottomless. There is not definitive right or wrong for what this film is about – and that’s the beauty of it! It’s a real film people! Rejoice!

I even believe Joker had more in common with American Psycho then first anticipated. Bret Easton Ellis would be proud of the depravity and unnerving insight this film depicted of human psychology and mental illness. Exploring what’s real and what’s not, Joker left many things ambiguous and open ended. Like American Psycho, it was like the film’s central method was to pull the audience into the mind of the protagonist rather into the flow of the story. In many ways, the protagonist was the story. The narrative was not the star of this film – it was Joker.

So, speaking on Joker would mean speaking on performance and, can I just say, if Joaquin Phoenix does not at least get nominated for this film, the Oscars should be shut down immediately. Every detail of Phoenix’s performance was impeccable. I honestly do not know what else I could say about his portrayal of the Joker that has not already been said as, wow, this performance was one for the history books. I would though like to give appreciation to the idea of Phoenix adopting a chronic laughing disease for his role… whoever thought of that idea is a genius. Unnerving, creepy and just uncomfortable to watch, Phoenix’s Joker was a performance to rival Heath Ledger’s…

… woah, did I just say that?

Look. To briefly touch on the Phoenix versus Ledger debate. Both performances are starkly different. Both performances are meant for different stories, against different characters, at different times and for different purposes. So, in a way, you cannot fairly compare them. Ledger’s Joker was a mastermind anarchist whilst Phoenix’s Joker was a deranged loner – two very different roles. Personally, I still have a soft spot for Ledger, mainly because he was not the star of The Dark Knight. Hence, his brief appearances felt more cherished and specific. Whereas in Joker, Phoenix was the star and every second of the film was focused on him, so there was not as much to “cherish” as per say. Then again, they are both incomparable, as I said. To be honest though, I am excited to see what time will have to say when we come to compare the performances in ten years or so.

Still both better than Leto.

As for how Joker may be a dangerous film and could potentially influence real crime and blah, blah, blah… look, its a sensitive subject. Although, if I were to give my two cents on the issue, I would say its a bit crazy to blast this film for being “edgy”. There is no denying that art can influence people but, then again, what is the point of making art if you are not influencing people? Art is there to be observed and to study the human condition, just as much as any other psychological or entertaining medium. Art is not something that creates psychopaths. Psychopaths are created from outside trauma and illnesses. Art may “speak” to mentally ill psychopaths but it does not create mentally ill psychopaths. What I am trying to get at here is, if psychos were going to kill people, they do it whether or not they paid to see Joker one weekend. A film like Joker should not pay for being smart and ballsy and neutrally chaotic. Sure, the film is unnerving to the extreme and rather violent in a hideous manner, but what would you expect from a Scorsese inspired Joker film?

I guess stay at home mums called Karen would, in ways, be unsettled with this film being as though it is named after their son’s favourite comic book character and is yet a very adult, cautionary film… but then again, its got an adult rating, so just don’t let your kid see it. Joker was a great film – not for everyone – but nonetheless, a great piece of art.

Definitely the most exciting thing I have seen all year which has given me hope that the next few years won’t just be Disney Disney Disney. Joker was something special and a film I doubt will leave the conversation any time soon. I respect it and hope it catapults Hollywood back into making thoughtful, insightful films in partnership with the style of 1970s cinema. Good job, Todd, good job.

Joker is, in fact… LOST ART


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