Wednesday 16 October 2019

The Joker review: A bleak but oddly beautiful horror boasting a brilliant, terrifyingly committed performance by Phoenix

5 stars

Joaquin Phoenix as Joker
Joaquin Phoenix as Joker
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Towards the end of his classic 1939 film Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir’s character Octave turns to a friend and says, sadly, “the awful thing about life is this - everyone has their reasons”. Even the Joker, it seems, Batman’s most unhinged enemy, who in comic books, films and TV shows has blown up hospitals, slaughtered the innocent and, most cruelly of all perhaps, subjected them to his crashingly unfunny jokes.

He does all of this simply to attract Batman’s attention, and seems to feel absolutely no remorse: he’s a monster then, a natty-dressing sociopath, the comic book equivalent of Charlie Manson. But in Todd Phillips’ Joker we’re given a different point of view.

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In what can hardly be described as a slow news cycle, Mr. Phillips’ film has caused a right old stink on social media, with people (most of whom cannot have seen it) accusing The Joker of being fascistic, anarchic, anti-capitalist, pro-capitalist, showing excessive sympathy towards mass killers and acting as an apologist for incels (involuntary celibates), a ghastly, self-pitying sub-community of males who seem to regard rapt female attention as a god-given right.

It is true that Phillips’ recasting of Joker as an anti-hero and someone deserving of our sympathy is morally problematic, especially given how efficiently we’re sucked into his seamy vortex of misfortune and self-pity. But isn’t that the inconvenient truth about lots of psychopaths? Did you ever read about Manson’s childhood? Were Ted Bundy’s early years blessed with sunshine and happiness? Monsters usually come from somewhere, and in this baroque, gritty prequel the young Joker is presented to us as a kind of latter-day Job.

Joaquin Phoenix in The Joker
Joaquin Phoenix in The Joker

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives with his ailing mother in a filthy inner city high rise where he struggles to pay the rent. He dreams of becoming a stand-up comic, but comedy club try-outs are thwarted by his tendency to laugh hysterically when under stress (he carries a laminated card that reads ‘forgive my laughter - I have a condition'). Arthur has lots of conditions, and a barrage of medication doesn’t seem to help.

His only solace comes from nightly viewings of Murray Franklin’s TV talk show, which opens with a cheesy monologue by its blandly competent host (Robert De Niro, channeling the unfunny loser he played in King of Comedy).

Arthur watches with his mother, and has fantasies of being a guest on the show. But meanwhile he’s been sacked from his job as a children’s clown after turning up for a gig armed. Poorly educated, and lacking any kind of charm, Arthur is repeatedly rejected by Gotham’s cruel and ultra-capitalist society, and seems bound on a one-way ticket to Arkham Asylum until he finally discovers something he’s really good at. Unfortunately, that turns out to be killing people.

When Arthur’s assaulted in full clown costume on a subway train he snaps, and shoots dead his three attackers. As they were Brooks brothers douchebags, the mysterious avenging ‘clown’ becomes an avenging underclass hero in the tabloid press. Arthur stares at the clumsy artists’ impressions of him on the front pages, and subconsciously begins to mould himself into that scary image. The Joker is about to be born.

The Gotham City in this film is inspired by late 1970s New York, when bin strikes, power outages and rat infestations made parts of Manhattan almost uninhabitable. It’s from one of these abandoned quarters that The Joker emerges, and it’s the film’s depiction of him as a kind of anarchistic avenger that has raised so many online hackles. When he staggers wounded onto a patrol car bonnet to accept the adoration of a mob, he seems a parody of the risen Christ, and this apparent validation of violent white male entitlement has offended many of those who hang around waiting to be offended.

Read more: From Conrad Veidt to Joaquin Phoenix - a history of the Joker on screen

But this reading of Phillips’ film does not stand up to close inspection, and is debunked at several key moments. The Joker’s most violent sequence, in which he attacks a colleague with a knife, seems like something out of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and makes Arthur ultimately impossible to empathise with. And crucially, when Arthur’s being feted by the mob, he doesn’t seem to be enjoying it, as though this isn’t what he meant to happen at all. Maybe The Joker does reflect the intolerance and hatred that has beset western society, but getting offended by that reflection of reality seems a little childish.

If the superhero movie has become such a central part of the cinematic vernacular, why not make serious ones now and then?

Read more: Is Joker a danger to society? 

The Joker is deadly serious, a bleak but oddly beautiful horror film that evokes the nightmarish nihilism of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. I knew Joaquin Phoenix could act: I didn’t know he could dance, and his graceful, brilliant, terrifyingly committed performance nods politely to Heath Ledger’s in Dark Knight.

When Phoenix’s Joker dances triumphantly down a set of street steps to thumping music, he looks pretty cool until we cut to two grizzled Gotham City detectives watching silently at the top. From up there, he looks pathetic.

(16, 122mins)

Read Chris Wasser's review: Joker: 'It rarely, if ever, asks us to sympathise with its troubled protagonist'

Also releasing this week:

Judy

2 stars

In 1969, Judy Garland arrived in London to perform a series of dates at the Talk of the Town nightclub.

She was only 47, but years of dieting, addiction and studio abuse had left her frail, almost elderly, and this sad final act of a hard life is dramatised in Judy.

Renee Zellweger catches Garland’s showbiz chutzpah and underlying desperation as she takes on exhausting late night gigs that sometimes end in drunken disaster.

Finn Wittrock plays Mickey Deans, Rufus Sewell her estranged husband in a film that is very busy but has the slightly hokey aesthetic of a made-for-TV movie.

Zellweger is good in it, but you can often see her acting.

(12A, 118mins)

Losing Alaska

3 stars

For most of us, global warming is still a worrying theoretical prospect, but in Alaska its effects are already being dramatically felt.

Tom Burke’s gloomy, insightful documentary charts the plight of the small Alaskan town of Newtok, whose mainly Yupik Eskimo population are under siege from erosion and melting sea ice.

When Burke began filming in 2015, there was talk of moving the community to higher ground, but a disagreement between rival village councils has led to a hopeless stalemate.

With no running water or sanitation, the locals try to make the best of things and watch sadly as the frosty environment which has sustained their people for many generations deteriorates.

(12A, 83mins)

Werewolf

3 stars

Adrian Panek’s spare and gloomy psychological horror film is set in the spring of 1945, and follows the fortunes of a group of Jewish children released from a Polish concentration camp by the advancing Russians.

Traumatised by their ordeal, they’re semi-feral, and are gently reintroduced to the social norms when they find shelter in a ruined mansion with a sole female inhabitant.

She becomes a sort of mother to them until she dies in mysterious circumstances, after which savage camp guard dogs besiege the house.

Werewolf is nicely made and paced, but far too slight to justify its context. Too soon for a death camp-themed horror film? It will always be too soon.

(No Cert, IFI, 88mins)

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