REVIEW: JOKER (2019)
Todd Phillips' reimagining of one of the most fervently debated comic book origin stories has certainly stirred up more controversy than most films could hope to prior to release. Winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and labelled a masterpiece by early reviewers, Joker has also been accused of sympathising with 'incel culture' and painting 'male rage' in a sympathetic light.
I have to admit that, prior to stumbling across an article on The Guardian, I had no idea what 'incel culture' was. And, even in light of my recent education on the topic, I'm still not entirely sure how it connects to Joker. Perhaps my 90s upbringing means I'm just not inclined to apply unhelpful labels to films, instead preferring to appreciate them as what they are intended to be - a piece of entertainment. But I also don't see how a film about a fictitious super-villain can be tied to real-life events, especially when those events are for the time being hypothetical.
Let's address the elephant in the room. God forbid, but if a mentally ill person, white or otherwise, shoots up a cinema this weekend, could such an occurrence really be blamed on the contents of Phillips' movie? Surely it would only serve as one of potentially hundreds of triggers that could theoretically compel any unhinged person to commit such a heinous act?
If Joker is a 'dangerous' movie in 2019, then I wonder where we draw the line between the silver screen and the world outside. If we're not careful, we will usher in an age of extreme censorship and filmmakers like Phillips will take their ball and go home. Perhaps that's not a bad thing in the eyes of some, but for this reviewer it sounds far more hellish than a world in which films like this and The Hunt don't exist.
Is Joker as problematic as some critics have suggested? In today's uber sensitive world, maybe. But it is also a fascinating character study that features one of the most harrowing performances of Joaquin Phoenix's career. One that presents a 'superhero' film devoid of any CGI or garish special effects, instead focusing on good old-fashioned storytelling.
It is not devoid of flaws, despite my rating. I wasn't entirely on board with the depiction of Thomas Wayne as a sort of garish Donald Trump type, given the character's philanthropy is a key feature of the comic books. And there's perhaps not enough of Phoenix as Joker, despite the film's two-hour runtime.
But the performance of the aforementioned lead is worth the price of entry alone. Any actor that takes this role has to give it everything they've got, and Phoenix does that and then some. His physical transformation was clear to see from the trailers, but the strongest elements of his performance are in the finer touches. The relentless buckling of the knee, the nervous and maniacal bouts of laughter, even the way he smokes a cigarette...everything is foreshadowing a dark turn of events.
Whether it can be considered the definitive version of the character is immaterial. Plenty of actors have done great work as the Joker and it is an exercise in folly to try and crown one as the one true Clown Prince of Crime. But Phoenix's version definitely stands up to anything we've seen before. He is simply mesmeric from beginning to last.
To me, Joker doesn't ask you to sympathise with its antagonist. It asks you to consider the circumstances that could make him. Just like so many of the halcyon 1970s film it's so clearly beholden to, the film shines a light on the underbelly of society and chronicles how a bad turn of events can lead a marginalised person to take drastic action against his perceived tormentors.
But who knows, perhaps I'm out-of-touch and part of the problem. Either way, I'd take this over the majority of comic-book films I've watched over the last decade.