Movie Review: Joker
In a recent interview, iconic movie director, Martin Scorsese, in response to a question on his thoughts about superhero movies, answered rather derisively:
“…But that is not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being”
Well, guess who the joke is on? The record-breaking box office success of Joker, the buzz it has created since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in August, the conversations it has ignited, the talks of a likely Oscar win next year for Joaquin Phoenix (upstaging earlier predictions of an Oscar win for Robert Downey, Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark in Avengers: Endgame) all seem like a “why so serious” tongue out at Scorsese’s apparent derision of the superhero genre of movies.
Ironically, early reports in 2017 had hinted that Scorsese would be a producer on Joker. Frequent Scorsese collaborator, Robert De Niro, featured in Joker, Scorsese fanboy-director of Joker, Todd Phillips, paid more than a passing homage to Scorsese in the movie as Scorsese’s movies, King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, were obvious influences especially the 70’s New York in Taxi Driver which inspired the decrepit tonality of 80’s Gotham City in Joker.
Billed as an origin story of one of comics’ most iconic villains, Joker’s storyline told, in the simplest terms, the story of a down-on-his-luck mentally-disturbed Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) who worked a day job as a clown with aspirations of becoming a stand-up comic.
In metaphoric terms, the storyline of Joker told the story of a class war between the have and the have nots in Gotham City which could very well be situated in the reality of today’s world in general and America in particular.
The Arab Spring revolution was sparked off by self-immolation in protest of the systemic injustices of authority. In Gotham’s equivalent, Joker’s unintended revolution was triggered by a train ride beat-down on the poster boy of the existentially insignificant by a trio of Wall Street types who so happened to work for Wayne Enterprises, Gotham’s poster boy of the over-privileged one-percenters.
This incident served the dual purpose of sign-posting the beginning of the titular character’s gradual descent into psychosis and the upheaval that would literally pull the mask off the false security of Gotham’s social construct to expose the insidious underbelly that covered an overwhelming mass of social angst. Much like the Arab Spring, Gotham’s social upheaval defied the expectation that the revolution will not be televised.
Starting out as a slow burner, Joker almost lazily layered its dark tale of one invisible man fighting personal demons whilst also battling an overwhelming social push back determined to keep him in existential anonymity.
A chance encounter with a long-kept familial secret stirred the incendiary broth of his mental turmoil more stridently as the trajectory of his descent to rock bottom continued unhindered.
Whilst deploying a tonally depressing cinematographic canvass (on which both the putrid filth on the streets of Gotham and literal putrefaction of Fleck’s mental health and emotional well-being were vividly captured) to project the movie’s depiction of Fleck’s and Gotham’s existential morass, Director, Todd Phillips, intermittently heightened the cadence of emotions with the haunting tubular terror of the film’s score.
Some reviews have described Joker as a masterpiece. While this may be arguable given that the film itself feels less original and more like a pastiche of the several movies that influenced Director, Todd Phillips, what is unarguable is the phenomenal tour de force delivered by Joaquin Phoenix in portraying the titular character.
Deploying an abiding commitment to method acting, Phoenix, physically, emotionally, psychologically and painstakingly captured and etched every nuance of Arthur Fleck/Joker’s persona on the viewer’s mind and disturbingly so.
If the eyes are the windows to the human soul, through Phoenix’s eyes, the viewer is offered a disturbing view into a soul so strikingly sad and disturbingly denuded, it is both visually and emotionally visceral.
One of the reasons offered for Heath Ledger’s suicide in 2008 was the fact that he never quite got rid of the demons he summoned in his seminal portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight.
Phoenix obviously summoned the same demons in his riveting portrayal of Joker. Truth be told; off-screen and before playing Arthur Fleck/Joker, Phoenix (especially his eyes) has always come across a keeper of unfathomable sadness. There is always the hint of the unmentionable in his visage such that in his movies, it is hard to tell the difference between life and art as the lines always appear blurred.
In Joker, Phoenix, using the gritty and depressing ambience of Gotham as a backdrop, combined it with the very air he breathes as a consummate method actor and the endless water of talent coursing through every vein of his being and engineered a riveting photosynthesis of visceral cinema.
There are going to be inevitable comparisons between his and Ledger’s portrayals of the Joker but truth be told; both portrayals complement each other.
Viewed from the perspective of movie timeline, it appears that in Joker, Phoenix’s Joker provided the compelling and depressing psychotic foundation upon which Ledger’s Joker would eventually build the riveting and deliciously psychotic carnage in The Dark Knight. 7.5/10