Joker Movie Review: A bold and an intense experience
Joker is an intense, claustrophobic experience where Phoenix's laugh is discomfiting, contagious and portends terror.
In many of its seedy street side shots, Todd Phillips's Joker focuses on a theatre and clearly shows the titles playing. There is Zorro the Gay Blade which came out in 1981 - a time that seems closer to the mood this film is going for - the late 70s and impending Reagan era vibe of New York that it lends Gotham City. But the more interesting title it shows is probably Ace in the Hole. Is it the Billy Wilder film? It's a film that hints at media manipulation and Joker insists on a kind of manipulation by everything from TV, press to upbringing and economic condition that drives Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) to become the murderous eponymous character. Ace in the Hole was also one of Wilder's famous critical and commercial failures. Failure and rejection are important driving forces in this film that's more honest and focused on its visual splendour than it is on the condition and circumstances that create the space for a turn like that of Arthur Fleck's to Joker. Also, who refers to Harvey Dent as "ace in the hole"? Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight.
The Gotham City and its socioeconomic atrophy that writers Phillips and Scott Silver envision can come across as unconvincing and out of context. It talks of class issues but without clear markers for the oppression it wants us to zero in on. In Joker's Gotham, what leads to widespread outrage and protests against the ruling class stands out like a non-sequitur that is insincere and unfunny. At least Christopher Nolan, in The Dark Knight Rises, spent time establishing the inequality and inequities of state to create something that led to widespread discourse comparing the events in the film with the Occupy Wall Street movement. But in Joker, the public anger and resentment is flipped to favour Arthur Fleck's degeneration, sometimes offering it as valid justification, a conceit that is sure to be tone deaf for the times we live in. In that regard, they don't shy away from turning the DC Comics world we know upside down. It is intentional, Joker even subverts the comic canon in several ways that is sure to divide the audience. It is bold choice to make and the film works in these moments when we don't see them coming. But there are also pivotal canonical moments that we do.
Director: Todd Philips
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro, Jolie Chan, Marc Maron
The visuals are closer to the DC Comics everyone is used to. There are only underbellies in Gotham of this Joker. Arthur Fleck's home and apartment is in dim yellow, the make up room of the place he is employed in is like an unattended basement and the subway stations are a rotten orange. Joker is an intense, claustrophobic experience where Phoenix's laugh is discomfiting, contagious and portends terror. Arthur Fleck's moments spent alone are always in closed off, tiny rooms that cause immense anxiety - what is he going to do next - like him playing with a gun in his living room or every time he is riding an elevator or entering/exiting one. Or him in front of a mirror in the green room reserved for extras. Phoenix's performance here is actually very reminiscent of his Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. No actor in recent times has used every pore in his face to deck up an expression as much as Phoenix does here and Arthur Fleck gives him ample scope to do just that.
Joker won the Golden Lion at Venice. The movie cannot be dismissed - considering the filmmaking - but it is still a head scratcher, especially with the way the film is populated - depressed men (mostly white) prone to violent tendencies. But Arthur Fleck's delusions and his delusional world finds new visual expression in Todd Phillips's film. In the film's third act, the Joker says, "It is exactly how I imagined it to be." A lot of people might say the same about the film but for very different reasons.