Director: Todd Phillips
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Glenn Fleshler, Leigh Gill, Douglas Hodge
RunTime: 2 hrs 2 mins
Rating: NC16 (Some Violence and Nudity)
Released By: Warner Bros
Opening Day: 3 October 2019
Synopsis: Forever alone in a crowd, Arthur Fleck seeks connection. Yet, as he trods the sooted Gotham City streets and rides the graffitied mass transit rails of a hostile town teeming with division and dissatisfaction, Arthur wears two masks. One, he paints on for his day job as a clown. The other he can never remove; it's the guise he projects in a futile attempt to feel he's a part of the world around him, and not the misunderstood man whom life is repeatedly beating down. Fatherless, Arthur has a fragile mother, arguably his best friend, who nicknamed him Happy, a moniker that's fostered in Arthur a smile that hides the heartache beneath. But, when bullied by teens on the streets, taunted by suits on the subway, or simply teased by his fellow clowns at work, this social outlier only becomes even more out of sync with everyone around him.
We can only imagine the intensity Joaquin Phoenix went through during the course of making this movie. In fact, after hearing all the hype (and repeatedly watching the chilling trailer), this reviewer had some concerns how mentally affected he would be after watching the film.
DC Comics’ most recognised antagonist gets a standalone movie. It is an origin story of how the Clown Prince of Crime came to be. Set against the backdrop of 1980s GothamCity, we first see Arthur Fleck working as a clown who brings people joy. And because life isn’t fair, he is subjected to prejudice, no thanks to his mental condition. After repeated disappointments, Arthur turns to a life of crime and chaos and emerges as the Joker.
Phoenix, who has delivered critically acclaimed performances in powerful films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (where he won Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival) and Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here (where he won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival), is on top form here.
As a sidelined individual in society, the actor scares us with his malnourished physical appearance, pathological laughter and a dejected personality that is frighteningly relatable. Disregarded by people around him, the character is mentally unstable and impoverished. Despite his good intentions, life lets him down again and again. To find an outlet, he seeks solace in all the wrong places. That is why we are pretty convinced that Phoenixhad gone through a tough time bringing this Joker to life on the big screen. We would love him to take home some prizes during the award season.
It is also hard to believe that the director behind this 122 minute movie is Todd Phillips, who is know for his comedic works like Starsky and Hutch, Old School and The Hangover franchise. He leverages on the setting of the movie to deliver a stylistic homage to films from that era. The film feels bleak and gloomy. Characters are angry, miserable and delusional. There is hurt everywhere, and the deaths do not help. No one is feeling cheery, and there is despair behind the Joker’s laughter. Film fans would draw a connection to classics like Taxi Driver (1976) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975).
It is a nice coincidence that the original Taxi Driver is Robert De Niro, who takes on a supporting role as a talk show host who Arthur worships. Zazie Beetz plays a female neighbour Arthur takes a liking to, while Frances Conroy portrays his long suffering mother. There are also connections to the Dark Knight himself.
This is a major studio comic book movie, and while it is something different from what we are used to seeing, there is still quite a bit of room if the filmmakers wanted to push the boundaries (it is rated NC16 for some violence and nudity). It is not a bad thing though, because things have to start somewhere before they become extremely radical. It is also commendable that the mainstream production won the Golden Lion, the highest prize at the Venice Film Festival.
Despite the controversy related to violence, it is a decent exploration of mental illness, a condition we should be more aware of because of the confused and chaotic world we live in.
(Joaquin Phoenix's disturbingly intense performance takes the spotlight in this bleak major studio comic book movie about how life will continue to be unfair)
Review by John Li