I was already in a fragile state emotionally when I entered the movie theater to watch the long-awaited Joker. I saw the film later than I usually see films, a fact that came courtesy of my involvement in a week-long project around the issue of childhood violence that had me both emotionally and physically drained.
I've never understood violence toward children. It doesn't make sense, but it's become so commonplace that it's hard to even be surprised by it anymore.
I haven't grown used to it, not by a long shot, but I no longer go through life wearing rose-colored glasses convinced that one of these days we're going to eliminate violence toward children because one of these days we, we being society, will finally catch on to better alternatives than leaving our dead children in a laundry bag in the back yard.
But, let's be honest. We're never going to catch on. Certainly not in my lifetime.
It was in this fragile emotional state that I sat down to watch Joker, a film that has arrived in theaters with so many warnings and cautions and advisories that you just know Warner Brothers had to be feeling just a little bit skittish about the film's box-office potential even with its Golden Lion win at Venice Film Fest.
Joker is an imperfect masterpiece, a social justice wonderfilm masquerading as a deviant superhero film and origin story that that wrestles with a society torn asunder by inequity and greed, heartlessness and cyclical brutality.
Joker is alleged to be a stand-alone film, a one-off journey that melts itself into your skin and leaves you feeling tattooed by its horror-tinged psychosis. It's difficult to imagine Joker as a stand-alone experience, especially if it proves to be a box-office smash, but we're dealing with Joaquin Phoenix here and that instantly gives the claim credibility. Known more for his artistic integrity than a thirst for box-office numbers, Phoenix reportedly lost 40 lbs. to play Arthur Fleck/Joker and it's difficult to imagine he'll be up to the task of doing so again.
While most still proclaim Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight to be the pinnacle achievement of the comic book universe, for my money this Todd Phillips directed film lays claim to the title with a brutal Joker-like smackdown of epic proportions. While purists may, and probably will lament the film's deviations from its source material, such complaints are nonsensical.
We had all been warned in the weeks leading up to Joker's release that it was too violent, too over-the-top, and that it glorifies violence.
Joker is violent, yes, but it's far less graphic and gratuitous in its violence than recent popular films like John Wick 3 and Rambo 27, or whatever number it is now. Joker doesn't glorify the violence, but it absolutely demands that we understand it. Joker demands that we look and listen and feel the violence perpetrated upon Joaquin Phoenix's masterfully portrayed Arthur Fleck. It's an interpersonal violence and an organizational violence and an institutional violence and the kind of violence that is so pervasive you don't even know that it's happening.
Then, Joker becomes what it's ultimately meant to be - a film about what happens when the victim becomes the victor or at least stands up and demands some attention and fights back with everything they have. Joker reminded me much more of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest than it did any of the oft-quoted Scorsese influences such as Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.
When we meet Phoenix's Arthur Fleck, he's living a subsistent life in a Gotham City tenement apartment with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), an invalid obsessed with late night television host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) and her former employer, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). Arthur, an over-medicated former asylum dweller, is semi-interested in nearby neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz), though soon his interest will be derailed by a lack of medication and a late night bullying encounter that begins to unravel his psyche and bring out his darker side.
Yeah, you know where that's going.
Joker takes place somewhere around 1981, though its production palette feels 70's inspired and there's little denying that Phillips is clearly identifying Gotham as symbolic of New York City.
Joker is ultimately about what happens when the joke becomes the Joker, when the society that creates inequity and discrimination and hate and despair is finally thrown into reverse and the disenfranchised fight back. Joker isn't so much a sympathetic character, but with remarkable discipline Phoenix creates an unforgettable character that you understand even as he's maniacally doing a downward spiral. He doesn't become that which created him - he becomes their worst nightmare.
It has been frequently noted that Joker is Joaquin Phoenix's film and such an observation is hard to argue, though the film's ensemble cast is impeccable down to the most minor of roles. Phoenix's physical transformation is jarring, his immersion so complete that it's jarring. Phoenix never hits a false note with a character that practically demands he play a symphony. While it's difficult to say if he will be recognized as on par with Heath Ledger, it would be utterly unforgivable for the performance to not at least receive an Academy Award nomination. The truth is that the two performances aren't comparable - they're variations of a masterpiece each beautiful in their own right.
Frances Conroy is quietly devastating as Penny, while Zazie Beetz infuses the film with an under-utilized humanity as Sophie. The De Niro appearance is a stroke of genius, a bit of slight stunt casting that works as De Niro turns Pupkin into Franklin.
Hildur Guðnadóttir's somber, mournful cello score is easily one of 2019's most immersive and impactful original scores, while kudos must be given to D.P. Lawrence Sher for creating a Gotham that perfectly balances on an uneven tightrope between the darkness and light that defines Arthur Fleck's cellular transformation.
Joker isn't the best film of 2019, but it's one of 2019's most unforgettable cinematic experiences and the kind of film you will be thinking about for days and weeks after viewing it. While some will claim Joker leans to the left politically, the truth is that the film is more an apolitical journey into what happens when the have nots have had enough.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic