A BOF Film Review: JOKER by Jo Hyde

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SYNOPSIS: Director Todd Phillips JOKER centers around the iconic arch nemesis and is an original, standalone fictional story not seen before on the big screen. Phillips’ exploration of Arthur Fleck, who is indelibly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, is of a man struggling to find his way in Gotham’s fractured society. A clown-for-hire by day, he aspires to be a stand-up comic at night…but finds the joke always seems to be on him. Caught in a cyclical existence between apathy and cruelty, Arthur makes one bad decision that brings about a chain reaction of escalating events in this gritty character study.

Joker, directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix, presents an unnerving study in madness.

If you’re looking for the traditional Joker origin story, you won’t find it in this iteration. This is not a “comic book film.” The 1988 graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke might be a source although it only suggests the core issues in this film. The Phillips/Phoenix take on the character is unique.

If you’re looking for a good time, you’re out of luck. Joker is relentlessly intense and disturbing. That said, it’s a brilliant piece of filmmaking. Joaquin Phoenix gives us a complex, intricate performance. He’s in every scene and carries the weight of the narrative so successfully that even if you want to look away, you won’t be able to. And, believe me, there were a number of scenes I can’t “unsee”.

Filmed in New York and New Jersey standing in for the fictional Gotham, Joker conjures up the “noir-est” of noir atmospheres. Grime and graffiti, damp concrete, soot-covered buildings with shabby surroundings create a mood of despair and hopelessness. It’s the equivalent of a dim, smoke-filled room.

Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck, who morphs into The Joker, creates both terror and pathos. He’s a mentally ill man, living with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy) in a small, run-down apartment. He works as a clown-for-hire but longs to be a stand-up comedian. He’s obsessed with a late-night talk show host, Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) and fantasizes about being a guest on Franklin’s show.

Even though Arthur admits in a mandatory therapy session that he’s always had trouble understanding if he even exists, he states that he only wants to make people laugh. So he walks through a sort of dream state in which the lines between reality and fantasy are blurred. He’s consistently a victim of bullies and no matter how hard he tries, he can’t catch a break — at least not as Arthur.

His metamorphosis into his chosen Joker persona happens almost by accident. I’ll leave that to you to discover, but I will say that the incident gives him the only taste of power he’s ever had. Violence and chaos become his new friends in the most extreme manner.

 

The film belongs to Phoenix. All other characters are peripheral. They’re just there to advance the narrative of Arthur’s transformation from shy, defeated would-be comedian to homicidal maniac. Aside from DeNiro and Conroy, who are both excellent, Zazie Beetz, who plays Sophie, an attractive young woman who lives down the hall from Arthur’s apartment, is a stand-out. She seems to be one of the few characters sympathetic to Arthur, and therefore, the object of his regard.

Brett Cullen also brings an unexpectedly unsympathetic characterization to Thomas Wayne. Yes, the Wayne family appears in this film, but that’s the only tenuous connection to the Batman story.  Thomas Wayne, in this film, represents the un-caring wealthy class, invoking the hatred and scorn of the less fortunate. He’s considering a run for mayor of Gotham because, as he says, “Gotham has lost its way.” Well, that’s an understatement! Everyone in Joker has lost their way!

Joker is not the kind of film you enjoy, but it’s one you definitely admire. Visually, it’s a stunning reflection of despair and desperation. Scenes of murder and destruction are equally alarming and mesmerizing. Even the background music, discordant and atonal, reflects Arthur’s chaotic mental state.

Joker will leave you unsettled, but awed. It’s not for everyone. – Jo Hype

GRADE: A-