What a strange and risk-taking studio movie this is—a disturbingly-violent Hollywood-style if also arthouse-type character study that just about holds everything together thanks to a killer performance by Joaquin Phoenix.
Dir. Todd Phillips
2019 | USA | Crime/Drama | 122 mins | 1.85:1 | English
NC16 (passed clean) for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen
Plot: A gritty character study of Arthur Fleck, a man disregarded by society.
Awards: Won Golden Lion & Soundtrack Stars Award (Venice)
Distributor: Warner Bros
Subject Matter: Slightly Disturbing
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed in theatres)
Joaquin Phoenix gives a killer (in all senses of the word) performance in one of the most anticipated films of the year. He will certainly get his fourth Oscar nomination for acting, but whether he will nab the coveted prize in what will likely be a very competitive Best Leading Actor category remains to be seen.
It is a great display of unhinged method acting, losing the requisite pounds to play a skinny, socially-awkward man with a day job as a clown, who would become the eponymous ‘villain’.
But a main problem inherent in Phoenix’s performance is that it can get tiresome, perhaps even irksome, after some time. There’s one too many an uncontrollable laugh, or one too many a shot of his scrawny body, and sometimes for the sake of it, leading to several empty moments that don’t quite contribute to characterisation.
It is also a film that when stripped of its style and technical bravura reveals a rather straightforward narrative, even though its larger themes of class conflict and anti-authority are strong, but it is strong because it is timely in today’s context of social struggle, mass protests and gun violence. At a wholly different time, this would have been a modest dystopian genre movie.
“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”
Still, Joker stagnates more frequently than expected, particularly in scenes that are uncertain whether they ought to be dealing with psychological motivation (which is a hallmark of most Hollywood studio movies) or psychological complexity (which aligns itself more to arthouse-type character studies).
To that end, it attempts both and achieves a strange, diluted mix of clarity and ambiguity that perhaps is the only apt way to capture the schizophrenic qualities of the character (mental illness is no doubt another key theme).
In this line of thought, maybe Joker is a masterstroke of well-considered if oddly-tuned filmmaking. But the flaws are still evident—that it has to rely so heavily on Phoenix’s performance to work says something about its storytelling and pacing. However, one must appreciate the amount of risk that Warner Bros has taken to produce the movie.
“When you bring me out, can you introduce me as Joker?”
There are two main reasons Joker has been considered a dangerous and disturbing mainstream movie. Both reasons operate at opposite ends of a dialectical tension, and is dependent on how one might treat the title character:
One, as an isolated case of mental illness i.e. a villainous treatment with psychosocial implications that make light of the struggles of underprivileged white males who exist in society;
Or two, as a symbolic representation of the pent-up frustrations of those in poverty i.e. an anti-hero treatment with sociopolitical implications that coupled with the film’s seemingly nonchalant attitude towards gun violence may galvanise susceptible folks to express nihilistic and vengeful fantasies.
I don’t think Joker is fully deserving of the Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival, but one thing is certain: it will be talked about for years to come, but not because it is a truly extraordinary work.