Thursday, 2 January 2020

Joker

I eventually got round to watching Joker and the critical central performance of Joaquin Phoenix which all the fuss is about, particularly comparing it with Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight. Joker seems to divide opinion hugely. Another Marmite film which people either seem to love or hate with middle-ground less populated.

As comic book films go, this really doesn't comply in any way, shape or form to much that has gone before. Like daft Batman films with special-effects driven superheroes flying around intending to be taken seriously by the comic-followers, very hurt if it's not presented as near real-life as possible so they can escape into fantasy-land for a couple of hours! I'll exclude Tim Burton's Batman from this assault on the genre as it was very much staged as a dark comedy, all tongue-in-cheek.

So no, this film is nothing like anything that has gone before. The story is a dark thriller, based in Gotham City but references to Batman are few and far between. Frankly, the film could have just been made without them at all, spoiling the purity in some ways (though I guess that'll provide hooks into sequels). It's a character study of a man abused in his childhood, mentally ill, desperately sad and at odds with the world in which he lives. A man who is trying to find a light at the end of any tunnel, whilst rugs are pulled out from under him. Medication keeping him relatively on track taken away, he starts to descend into madness and behave irrationally, forming the Joker character. Arthur Fleck is his name and he's trying really hard to earn a crust as a street-clown and entertainer against the efforts of most people around him. He sees himself as a stand-up comic and when he gets fired, starts to pursue that dream.

There are comically-charged interludes with Robert De Niro hatching one of them beautifully as the TV talk-show host and the over-sized detectives at one point trying to keep up with the super-fit fleeing Joker, but this is mostly about the dark side of Joker's life. This can be viewed in isolation almost, as I suggested earlier, as the photography focuses in, with shallow depth on Phoenix most of the time, infiltrating his inner self and reflecting his rapidly-deteriorating world-view.

Phoenix plays Joker physically well also, as he twists and turns his body, leaping and dancing madly around the sets. Sets which are darkly lit with colours reflecting a depressing and dour world. He contorts his face and head, shoulders and arms to sinister effect and the fact that he's so boney-thin adds to the glum darkness of his situation.

Gotham City descends into unpoliceable chaos reflecting Joker's descent into uncontrolled behaviour as we head through the middle of the film. There are plot inconsistencies and some stages of the story where the viewer is not really sure what's real and what's in his head, but it has been fused with the tangible in order to keep everyone generally on track.

There are some other great performances around Phoenix, such as Zazie Beetz as the single-mum neighbour and Glenn Fleshler as a work colleague to name a couple. But this film is very much a one-man show. There is violence beyond the THWAK! POW! of the comic book which is sometimes disturbing and graphic. There are reflective poignant scenes as we peep into the head of our anti-hero and by the time we come to the end, we're really not sure who we're siding with - the man abused by society or those who have made him this way.

At the end of the day it is, of course, just a story - and a fantasy one at that. In comparing the film with what has gone before, yes, this is a new take. On comparing the performance of Phoenix and the character he has created with his body, I have seen none better. Ledger was far too together with himself and clear-thinking, not dark and sinister in the way Joker is presented here - and Jack Nicholson was the comic turn laughing his way through another!

I really enjoyed Joker. I thought it was a staggeringly good film. It has been produced flawlessly, directed and shot with style. The soundtrack is great fun and fits in perfectly with the growing madness of our character. I see that Joker 2 is in the pipes, so it'll be interesting to see what they do with that. I fear that we've now had the character-building insight film and we'll not get another. That would be sad. I just hope that it doesn't stray into comic-book-land but lets us spend at least one more film studying this man in isolation. Highly recommended viewing.

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