Thursday, October 03, 2019

Joker – chilling character study of a familiar figure that avoids becoming a superhero film (UK and Irish cinemas from Friday 4 October)

If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you’ll know that my comic book credentials are weak. I’m not hugely invested in the Universal or DC superhero universes. Some of the films offer impressive stunts and glorious escapism, some get under the skin of the characters and what motivates them, while others get tangled in their canon like a fly stuck in a spider’s web.

Joker doesn’t try to enter the superhero world. Instead we are given an(other) origin story to explain the who and why behind Batman’s nemesis in Gotham city. While the Joker slowly oozes the whiff of uncontrolled evil, the presentation of the noir city around him with budget pressures, corrupt officials and covered-up relationships adds to the creepy feeling that much is not right in the city of Gotham.

This is a masterful, dark character study that allows a very recognisable nonchalant, dancing, psychotic figure to emerge from a troubled family and health situation. Unhurried, gruesome, and captivating to the end. So much better than Pennywise.

Building on the established rule that clowns are sad, and bullied clowns living in poverty are even more sad, we are introduced to the morose figure of Arthur Fleck with a made-up face and a laugh he can’t suppress. Carrying around a “forgive my laughter” is a great touch. His mental health difficulties include delusions which blur the line between Fleck’s reality and his internal fantasy.

What is not blurred is the depiction of violence. Todd Phillips’ film contains the most violent stabbing I’ve watched in a cinema this year, on top of some deadly stand-up comedy and blasé shootings. Alongside the explicit and implied bloodshed, the film makes two prescient points: the easy availability of guns is destructive; and the quality of mental health care services and their funding are vital.
“The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don't.”
Joker is not without fault. For a film set in 1981, it overly relies on more modern themes. The ghost of the anti-capitalist Occupy movement is prevalent, and those scenes are particularly alarming as angry crowds quickly catch themselves up in a movement that has no central control. The copycat violence is valid but still sits uncomfortably with the knowledge of the 2012 attack in Aurora during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises.

Women are also somewhat incidental in the movie, with Fleck’s infirm mother (Frances Conroy) providing the necessary grit in his relationship with the Wayne family, and Zazie Beetz appearing as his down-the-corridor infatuation.

The violence isn’t entertaining. But the thrill of the film is watching Joaquin Phoenix’s title performance. Every movement, every twitch adds to our understanding of the gaunt man behind the mask. The actor’s weight loss for the role underlines the sense of anxiety and misery about the character. For an hour or more, we’ve been teased with snippets of mannerisms and affectations. But then the moment comes.

Fleck walks down a steep set of steps, dressed in a natty red suit and orange waistcoat, with war paint applied. He turns into the familiar figure that has been drawn and acted by so many over the years. The manic dance, the bend of the knees, the flailing hands. The image of a man out of control. The Joker is born. And the scene that follows with Robert De Niro playing talk show host Murray Franklin is the chilling cherry on the cake.

Joker (15) is released in UK and Irish cinemas from Friday 4 October.

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