BY BILLY SUTER
AFTER having been at the helm of such relatively lightweight and forgettable fare as Road Trip, Old School, Starsky & Hutch and The Hangover movie trilogy, US director Todd Phillips excels with Joker, a captivating psychological thriller that is winning mostly rave reviews – but also some negative press – after having snatched The Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival in August.
I give it a hearty thumbs-up and it would come as no surprise to see a few Golden Globe and Oscar nominations in the bag in the new year.
Part of the DC Comics universe, it is a remarkable film, very far removed from the expected capes, crusading, campness and pow-kapow primary-colour action of the comic book superhero realm.
Instead, like the superlative Dark Knight series of films, Joker is a more feral and intelligent beast – a story, set in 1981, of how Batman’s nemesis, Joker, came to be. It is a dark, gloomy, unsettling and also very sad film focused on the drastic deterioration of an individual, the ills and absurdities of society, and the fears and dangers of a world getting crazier by the second.
It is the story of the mentally ill Arthur Fleck, a beguiling chronicle of an increasingly pitiful, increasingly warping individual, who loses his mind alongside all hope of acceptance and respect, let alone love, as he confronts constant bullying, humiliation, violence, rejection and disappointment.
Superbly played by Joaquin Phoenix, who shed some 24kg for an almost skeletal frame for the picture, he emerges as such a melancholy, misunderstood, severely wounded and scarred individual that even as he grows more violent and unpredictable in retaliation to his sorry circumstances, he tends to have us rooting for him.
Arthur is a struggling party-clown performer and wannabe standup comedian, battling to survive in a Gotham City that is quite obviously New York City. He lives there in a dreary, cheap flat with his enigmatic mother (Six Feet Under’s Frances Conroy) who, he discovers, has long kept a secret from him.
To add to his woes, Arthur has a medical condition that has him uncontrollably laughing like a hyena when stressed. Not a good idea when confronted by three drunk pals on a late-night underground train trip home, for instance.
Joker is shot with a constant murkiness and an air of doom, conjuring memories of A Clockwork Orange and Taxi Driver, and the mood is amplified with an effective score making good use of echoey percussion and creepy bow instruments.
The movie also makes good use of the songs Smile, That’s Life and, used in a sure-to-become classic scene, full of foreboding, that has Fleck dancing down a long flight of steps, Gary Glitter’s Rock ’n’ Roll Part II.
Interestingly, reports Wikipedia, Warner Bros had pushed for Phillips to cast Leonardo DiCaprio as the Joker, hoping to use his frequent collaborator, Martin Scorsese, to attract him. However, Wikipedia adds that director Phillips said Phoenix was the only actor he considered, and that he and co-writer Scott Silver wrote the script with Phoenix in mind.
Joker has some rather unnerving violence, a particularly ugly scene in a flat going a little overboard. Also, scenes involving a love interest (Zazie Beetz as a cynical single mother who lives in a neighbouring flat) come over as a little unlikely and under-developed. For all that, the film remains, for me, one of the best in a year lean on quality pictures.
The impression the film left me with at the end was that this was but the first, small stepping stone to a more ferocious fermentation of evil from a sad soul with an increasingly decaying mind. The seeming adulation he receives on the street, after so long craving any attention at all, is only starting to fuel Fleck’s fire… and tickle his funnybone.
For the record, Joker has reportedly already grossed more than $563.6 million worldwide, making it the 10th highest-grossing film of 2019. It has also set box office records for an October release, reports Wikipedia.
Note: Joker is showing countrywide in South Africa. Thanks to Suncoast Cinecentre at Durban’s Suncoast Casino for comping tickets for my review.