Written by Hiram Harrington
Full disclosure: I loved Joker. I sat in the cinema, watching it for the first time, and laughed, gasped, and held my breath as much as any director could have hoped for. At this stage of the game, it seems almost gross for me to champion Todd Philip’s Joker. In a field where cinematic titans such as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino have come to vy for the top prize in the American film canon, the Guy-Who-Directed-The-Hangover’s movie seems like a bit of a punchline, even if it did win the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival. Online “incel” culture has swallowed up Joker’s discourse to the point of suffocation. Critics are divided on whether it has any value or not. But, in this humble film fan’s opinion, it’s a brilliant movie.
The story of Arthur Fleck (a much-awarded turn by Joaquin Phoenix) isn’t one that is alien. Arthur is employed as a clown-for-hire, doing odd jobs as a sign-holder and performing at children’s hospitals. When an increase in cuts to the Gotham health services result in his medication and therapy coming to a halt, a lifetime of mental illness and trauma bubbles to the surface and drives him to extremes: he loses his job, tries to write jokes to earn money, and accidentally becomes the face of an anti-government movement after murdering three wealthy young men. Talk about a downward spiral.
Joker has been compared to Scorsese classics such as The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver because of its plot and tone, and has thus inherited many of the same criticisms. Joker’s main criticism has come from an interpretation of the film’s message: if society doesn’t look after these troubled men, they’ll “werewolf” and take out their anger on the people they see as being the cause of their circumstances. It is a genuinely horrendous thought. However, Joker has a less superficial meaning that, if it were more obvious, would lead to a greater appreciation of it. Joker confronts some of the most prevalent social issues in the world today: the class divide, mental illness, and government greed. It knows it’s an extreme film. It knows this reaction to those issues isn’t a normal one. Joker shows us a man who, over and over again, faces rejection and isolation because of a wider systemic issue; not to mention his abusive childhood-caused condition of uncontrollable inappropriate laughter further alienates him from others.
While the script has faced accusations of being sub-par for a film so highly awarded, Joaquin Phoenix’s delivery of every line is a masterclass.
While the script has faced accusations of being sub-par for a film so highly awarded, Joaquin Phoenix’s delivery of every line is a masterclass. It may seem like a cop-out for me to reiterate what months of fan appreciation has already said, but it deserves all the praise it gets. Phoenix makes an inherently unlikeable man someone we toe the line of rooting for. We see Arthur get beat down by the system that’s supposed to protect the most vulnerable, and at every turn he initially tries to do what he believes is right. Watching him opposite Zazie Beets and Robert De Niro is a thrill, as we seen Phoenix’s nuances come to life when played against others. Phoenix famously starved himself for the role and was encouraged to improvise moments in-character on set (which spawned the uncomfortable refrigerator scene), so when you look at the contrast between Arthur and Phoenix himself, they are virtually unrecognisable. It truly is a stunning transformation and thus, an incredible work of character study.
I cannot, in good consciousness, tell you that Todd Philips made a better movie than Martin Scorsese. I cannot tell you that the dialogue was written better than Marriage Story. I cannot even tell you the music, or the cinematography, or any element bar Phoenix was not matched or bettered by the other nominated features. What I can say is that Joker captured a cultural sentiment of disillusionment and rage in a manner unlike very many before it. It’s genuinely difficult to watch it and not feel an adrenaline rush, to not feel a shred of excitement when the city descends into chaos; especially with the most tensely-constructed moment I have seen in years: the Murray Franklin Show scene.
Joker embodies the fear of a broken system, and the extreme consequences one can create. Where this year’s category is stacked with films that all posit some kind of social or personal commentary, Joker has the most cruelly engaging performance of them all. It may not deserve the Best Picture award, but you’d be a damn fool to ignore its chances.
The 92nd Academy Awards will take place this coming Sunday 9th of February.