You’ve probably already read a review or two of Joker. Or perhaps seen it and formed your own opinion. Maybe you’ve seen it and realised that Peter Bradshaw is a pretentious, joyless man who is wrong about Joker and should be locked in a room with Dr. Strangelove on repeat until he cracks and admits it isn’t that good and people only say they like it so others don’t think that they’re thick.
The plethora of sequels and identikit money-makers which cater to fanboys and garner (this might be a personal bugbear) unwarranted high IMDb scores* has worn me down. I’m clearly not alone as, apart from Peter Bradshaw, reviews for Joker have been glowing. I wanted to pick out a couple of things from the film which really struck a chord with me and make it stand out.
Joaquin Phoenix has been lauded for his portrayal of Arthur Fleck’s journey to Joker and rightly so – for me it was his body movement which made the performance. The weight loss, which, while fitting, isn’t what makes Arthur/Joker work. Phoenix moves the character through juddering, twitchy, awkward, and at times, confident motions with fluidity. It’s astonishing and as the character’s mood jerks one way and another, so do his movements.
Dance is notoriously hard to film, but Todd Phillips manages to imbue Phoenix’s performance with a perfect dichotomy of grace and ugliness. No more so than in a scene where Arthur dances in a disgusting public toilet, his skinny limbs twisting, turning and gliding in the dirt, writhing out of it.
This particular scene reminded me of Swan Lake, which I was once made to sit through all seventeen hours of by an ex- the emergence of one thing from another displayed through a dance. Joker is a filthy beauty emerging from beautiful filth, a rhythmical evolution which frankly was way better than Swan Lake.
As Arthur Fleck evolves into Joker, it’s no spoiler to say that his mental health (by conventional standards) deteriorates. It’s something which has been cross-examined in writing and at the water cooler. As a person who’s been a patient within the mental health system, here’s what I thought.
Arthur Fleck’s mental troubles are one perspective of an incredibly varied issue. Yes he’s something of an amalgamation of different symptoms, but trust me, knock around a ward an hour before medication time and you’ll see anger, delusions, paranoia and darkness. It’s not a nice thing to look at and it’s never the same and never just one thing. But what I loved most about Joker’s take on mental health was how it captured the nihilistic humour shared by those who struggle.
Humour on the ward was darker than space at nighttime, with your eyes shut. Humour in Joker is much the same.
“I hope my death makes more cents than my life”, in particular got me. It’s pure genius and a shame converting it to pound sterling doesn’t stand up as a pun.
Finally, and this might be stating the obvious, but Joker is a friggin comic book movie, how real do you want it? I give no weight to complaints that it’s too serious and dangerous, but don’t then also say it doesn’t treat its subject matter with enough respect. Have cake or eat cake.
Ultimately Joker is a film about how a murderous clown emerged from a mentally ill man. It’s a comic book origins film and there are hundreds of those. There are none like Joker, it’s bravely new. Joker is also different from most of the ‘serious’ films, while also being somewhat serious itself. When have you seen a film like Joker before?
Just like Phoenix’s performance, Joker moves erratically, it jerks and then strides; it has tragedy and comedy, severity and splashes of brutal violence. Joker’s brilliance is in its paradoxical approach, which mirrors the journey its protagonist is on.
Joker has, for me, rescued cinema for 2019.
*Avengers: Endgame, an overblown CGI fest we all knew the ending of in advance as certain contracts were up, has 8.4/10 and is currently the 49th best film OF ALL TIME. For context, Fargo is 175th.