The most highly anticipated film of the fall prestige film season has quickly become the most controversial. JOKER has only just arrived at our cinemas today but it has already been yanked from screens all over the US over fears of a repeat of the horrible mass shooting that took place seven years ago at a midnight screening of THE DARK NIGHT RISES in Aurora, Colorado. Are community leaders and the police overreacting? Maybe they are but if you lived in a place where guns are as ubiquitous as they are in the US, would you take a chance? It makes me glad I live in Hong Kong even with all our current sociopolitical problems.
Such sociopolitical problems form the backdrop to JOKER, the origin story to Batman‘s most nefarious archenemy. It’s the early 1980s and Gotham City has literally become a rat hole with garbage piling up on the street. Government social services are seeing their budgets being slashed and the divide between the 2% and the other 98% is as wide as it’s ever been. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix, THE SISTERS BROTHERS; MARY MAGDALENE; YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE; IRRATIONAL MAN; HER), a single man in his 30s, shares a dingy flat with his mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy, TV’s SIX FEET UNDER; TV’s AMERICAN HORROR STORY), living down the hall from his neighbour, Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz, HIGH FLYING BIRD; DEADPOOL 2), a working, single mother whom Arthur is secretly in love with. During the day, Arthur works as a clown-for-hire but he has dreams of being a stand-up comedian. At night, he and Penny sit down together after their meagre dinner to watch their favourite TV talk show host, comedian Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). After getting beaten up once too often, Arthur, who is on depression medication and has a condition that causes him to laugh like a hyena when under stress, decides to take matters into his own hands by shooting three Wall Street bankers who attack him just because they can. Rather than being appalled by the killing, Gotham’s citizens embrace the idea of the little guy finally standing up to the corporate fat cats. This sets Arthur on his journey to become Joker.
Co-written and directed by Todd Phillips, it’s hard to believe that JOKER is from the same guy who bought us THE HANGOVER trilogy and WAR DOGS. Who knew he had this darkness in him? JOKER is dark. Really dark. I haven’t seen a film this bleak since perhaps TAXI DRIVER in 1976. Phillips clearly had Scorsese on his mind while he was making this film as JOKER pays homage not just to TAXI DRIVER but also to another Scorsese film, KING OF COMEDY, both of which starred Robert De Niro. Arthur is a little bit Travis Bickle and a little bit Rupert Pupkin while De Niro is now playing Jerry Langford.
Phillips has been quick to point out that JOKER is not part of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). If only all the other DC films were this good, Warner Bros. would be giving Disney a run for their superhero money. JOKER is an absolute tour de force, especially for Phoenix, who lost a whopping 52 pounds for the role to the point where his shoulder bones and ribs are sticking out. Anyone who ever thought that Heath Ledger’s Joker was the paradigm, they’ll be reassessing that thought after watching Phoenix here. The actor plays Arthur as a tragic figure who should be getting our sympathy but we know that if we feel sorry for him, we’ll have to feel sorry for every mass shooter who felt the world wronged him. Of course, the NRA and its supporters will no doubt be saying in the coming days that JOKER proves their thesis that mass shootings are a mental health problem but let’s remember that this is fiction and not everyone who is ignored by society picks up a gun and uses it.
But back to the film, JOKER premiered at the end of August at the Venice International Film Festival where it won three awards including the Golden Lion, its highest prize. Icelandic musician and composer, Hildur Guðnadóttir (TV’s CHERNOBYL; SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO), was also a winner in Venice for her wonderfully disorienting score. More controversies notwithstanding, expect Phoenix, Phillips, Hildur and cinematographer Lawrence Sher (WAR DOGS) to receive Oscar nominations.
JOKER will most definitely be included in my list of favourite films of the year, and pretty high up on that list too. Although it can be tough to watch at times, it’s a fabulous film.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, October 5th, 8:30 am HK time!
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