Scott’s Review #953
Reviewed November 1, 2019
Joker (2019) is a film that has divided audiences. Some love it, others loathe it. The experience is not your standard fun super-hero fare with a hero’s rescue and the good triumphing over the evil. Despite the parlay into Batman territory the film smacks the viewer across the face with its brutality, violence, and social and psychological injustices. Joaquin Phoenix pummels the audience with an angry and bitter portrayal of the title character, easily one of the best performances of the year.
In one of the first scenes, before we even know the character, we experience a long close-up of Phoenix laughing hysterically. We wonder what is so funny, before the revelation that he, Arthur Fleck, suffers from a nervous condition that causes inappropriate outbursts. The time is 1981 and the fictional Gotham city, clearly a mirror image of New York City, is the setting. Times are tough, and crime is rampant. Arthur lives in a dumpy apartment with his sickly mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and visits a social worker regularly to receive his prescription medicine.
Arthur finds meager work as a party clown and aspires to be a stand-up comedian. After a gang attacks him in an alley, Arthur’s co-worker, Randall, encourages him to take a gun. Arthur invites his neighbor, single mother Sophie, to his stand-up comedy show, and they happily begin dating. Finally, another person understands him. Segments of the population are disenfranchised and impoverished as Thomas Wayne, a billionaire philanthropist, runs for mayor of Gotham. A strange connection develops between Arthur, Penny and Thomas becoming central to the plot.
Can we discuss the bravura performance by Phoenix for a moment? If anyone thinks that Heath Ledger was phenomenal when he portrayed the same character in 2008’s The Dark Knight will be elated by Phoenix who takes the character to a completely different level. What Phoenix adds is a strong sympathy for Arthur/the joker, and a caring for the character. We feel sorry for him but should we? He is a villain after all. One could easily debate whether his character can be considered the bad guy, or could he be deemed the hero? Regardless of the assessment the performance is an unforgettable one.
A turn off to some, which I found tremendously powerful, is the role-reversal in the portrayal of the Wayne family/Bruce/Batman characters. Always deemed the “good guys”, in Joker, Thomas Wayne is self-centered, pompous, and embodies a sense of entitlement and snobbery. Bruce is a young boy, but the implication is that the family is unkind and what might the child grow up to believe? Why is Batman/Bruce Wayne heralded as good and the joker evil? It turns the tradition upside down into a twisted mind warp and this is wonderfully creative and thought-provoking.
The best scene in the film, which triggers much of the subsequent violence and chaos, occurs when Arthur is invited to appear on a late- night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). A week earlier Franklin had played a humiliating clip of Arthur poorly performing stand-up. Arthur decides to appear in full “joker” attire, and the eventual discussion and words lead to tragic events. The scene is tense, intelligently written, and combative as the men spar over politics and class distinction.
Lastly, the musical score is dark, haunting, and mesmerizing without overtaking the film. Many key scenes of Arthur dancing and posturing are masterful with the inclusion of the bombastic music. He is a celebratory character, in his own mind at least, and the music fuses into the scene with gusto and power. The combination of clowns and an incredible score add an immense amount to the production.
Joker (2019) showcases a marvelous acting performance on the part of Phoenix which combines a haunting musical score in its depth. Providing a social commentary for the poor and disenfranchised, this film will divide viewers, probably based on preconceived expectations of a traditional Marvel type super-hero event. The film offers much more than safer films like Wonder Woman (2017) or Black Panther (2018) ever could- a dark and violent character study.