Thursday 23 January 2020

Movie Review: Joker (2019)

A mental anguish drama, Joker is a disturbing origins story infused with a dark mood.

In a dilapidating Gotham City, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) suffers from mental issues, including uncontrollable bouts of awkward laughing. He works as a clown-for-hire, and lives with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), who speaks highly of mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). Arthur has unrealistic hopes of a career as a stand-up comic, and admires late night television talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro).

Arthur is assaulted by a group of thugs, then budget cuts curtail the social services available to him. A colleague provides him with a gun, presumably for self defence. He meets his neighbour, single mom Sophie (Zazie Beetz), but then loses his job and sinks deeper into despair. While wearing clown makeup Arthur tangles with a group of obnoxious men on the subway, and Wayne's glib reaction to the incident sparks class warfare street protests. Arthur starts to discover shocking secrets about his mother and his past, pushing him over the edge of sanity.

The primary villain in the Batman universe receives his own background story, and Joker is a gloomy descent into despondency. Director and co-writer Todd Phillips conceives of soulless wickedness emerging as a reaction to an uncaring world filled with rampant bullying, where a fragile man like Arthur Fleck does not so much fall through the cracks as is shoved through them.

Colleagues make fun of him, goons kick him in the street, and budget cuts take away his limited opportunities for subsidized help. Unfit for any meaningful work and unable to control his embarrassing laughter to even perform as a comic, Arthur is close to unsalvageable. Once he peels away the layers of his mother's secrets and with a gun in his hand, he turns into something much more dangerous.

The joys of evil cause a rare twinkle in his eye. Arthur notices how his subway incident brings a sense of power, media attention and people to the streets. The celebrity he craves by dreaming of an appearance on the Murray Franklin show is now within reach, but along a twisted pathway littered with victims.

Arthur's gradual transformation from societal victim to murderous freak is the film's sole obsession to the exclusion of any other plot elements, and as a result all the secondary characters are thinly defined. But in the title role Joaquin Phoenix dominates, delivering a haunting performance filled with coiled intensity. He alternates between pitiful, willing and menacing, dark eyes burning with building hatred at a world singularly lacking in empathy for men like him.

Phillips freely borrows aesthetics and themes from Scorsese's Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy as he steers Joker to several visual highlights, Phoenix physically throwing himself into statuesque posturing and scenes of urban landscape dominance through sheer presence. The costumes and make-up are chilling and build to a classic look as Joker finally introduces himself to a large television audience. The man looks funny, but he will now ensure no one else is laughing.

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