Sunday, October 06, 2019

I’m pretty sure that the backlash has already begun. Joker arrived on a wave of critical praise, even managing to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. But even now there are rumblings that it isn’t very good. Blah blah incels. Blah blah Scorsese rip-off. Blah blah Joaquim’s a ham.

First of all, as regards the incel stuff. Thank fucking Christ this isn’t some pro-incel nonsense. Well, for the most part. For the majority of the movie this is just a sad, sorry tale of a mentally ill man steadily losing the plot. There’s no outrage that women aren’t throwing themselves at him. He’s just losing his mind.

The only reason that I say that it mostly avoids incel-type nonsense is that there’s a scene near the end where the Joker/Arthur Fleck becomes a bit whinny. He goes on a late night TV show with Robert De Niro’s talk show host and complains about how people aren’t nice. He also confesses to some earlier murders. It’s a terribly written scene; easily the worst in movie. Which is kind of a big deal when this is the Joker’s first big scene.

Everything about it feels wrong. De Niro’s character hardly bats an eyelid when the Joker confesses to murder, the TV show stays on the air for way too long while De Niro pompously lectures a killer and the Joker doesn’t sound like the Joker at all. It’s like it’s still Arthur Fleck talking but in drag. Which I suppose could kind of be the point. But the dialogue is still awful and self-pitying, something which the Joker usually isn't. I kind of wish that the Joker would have come on the TV show and not spoken a word; just sat there for a while and then shot De Niro’s character in the head before laughing hysterically like it’s the funniest joke in the world.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the movie’s best scene is when we first get a glimpse of what’s to become the Joker. Arthur has lost his job as a clown for hire and attracts the attention of some Wall Street-type douchebags while riding home on the Subway. He’s still in his clown gear and they taunt him, beat him and humiliate him until, like Death Wish’s Paul Kersey, he blows two of them away with a concealed weapon. The last guy, like The French Connection, he chases off the train and shoots in the back. Arthur then flees the scene and disappears into a men’s bathroom. Here, wearing full clown make-up, he outstretches his arms and gazes at himself in the mirror, finding liberation in his violent madness. It’s a beautifully poetic scene; a lunatic finally finding himself.

Another great scene is when a couple of ex-colleagues come to visit Arthur in his apartment. They’ve found out that his mother has died. One of his former colleagues is a man who gave him a gun; an action which inadvertently led to Arthur losing his job. The other guy is a little person. They find Arthur in ghostly white face (he’s dyed his hair green and is playing with his face paint). After a brief chat, Arthur brutally and hideously attacks the man who gave him the gun, stabbing him repeatedly and smashing his head into the wall. The little person can only look on in disbelief. Eventually the man asks to leave, not knowing if he’s going to be murdered in turn. The scene is dripping with tension. Arthur then says that he can go. With great relief, the little person goes to exit the apartment. However, there are chains on the door and he can’t reach. He then has to ask Arthur to help him out. You’re never quite sure what’s going to happen and it’s darkly comic to see the dwarf squirm so much in the face of madness.

Perhaps the most chilling scene, though, is when Arthur lets himself into a neighbour’s flat. It isn’t clear yet (although it’s pretty obvious if you’re paying attention) but Arthur has been imagining that he’s in a relationship with a woman named Sophie that he encounters in his apartment building’s elevator. They have a brief exchange and then we see them spending time together. Only they aren’t. It’s all in Arthur’s head. It’s very sad and pathetic but it feels like an incredibly real delusion. The fantasies that he has are exactly the kind of thing that lonely men come up with. After killing the Wall Street guys, and still in full make-up and covered in blood, he imagines knocking on Sophie’s door and making out with her. What woman would do that? And the mother of a small child, no less. As always with these types of things, Arthur casts himself as the hero of his own nightmare.

So when Arthur turns up in Sophie’s flat, after having killed his mother (of course), there’s a palpable sense of dread. The casual way that he sits down and waits for her is rife with menace. And adding tension to the scene is the fact that, when he arrives, Sophie is putting her little daughter to bed.

What I liked so much about the film is that it’s more of a mood piece than anything else. The photography and music are fantastic. Some of the visuals are breathtaking - the Joker running through the tunnel, the lighting as the Joker waits to come through the curtain on the TV show and even Arthur simply trudging through his neighbourhood. This is lightyears ahead of the bland, moribund stuff that Marvel are feeding us. Just watching Arthur get fired and then smash his head into a phone booth window had more pathos and gravity than the whole of Black Panther.

Which isn’t to say that this is a great movie. There are some glaring faults. Robert De Niro doesn’t quite convince as the TV host, Thomas Wayne is merely a Donald Trump-style douchebag and the movie fetishes the Joker character. Once his face is painted, he seems to move in nothing but slow motion and is constantly filmed leaning back, smoking a cigarette. The Joker is meant to be a fascinating character but he isn’t meant to be the epitome of cool. I get that the confidence, the smoking and the dancing is Arthur finally finding himself but there’s so little actual Joker in the movie and so much of it is filmed in slow-mo that it feels that the film loses a little perspective. Heath Ledger’s Joker was always fascinating and endlessly watchable but you didn’t feel that Nolan was identifying with him or trying to turn him into a symbol of cool.

Another fault I had with the film is that the Joker never really feels like the Joker. I always thought that the Joker was fiercely intelligent. Evil yes, but super smart. Arthur Fleck is a bit of a dolt. As he’s presented here, he wouldn’t be capable of planning anything. Perhaps that’s the point though? Todd Phillips has said that he didn’t want to make it certain whether Arthur is the true Joker or not. Perhaps Arthur inspires someone else to take on the mantle.

That being said, there’s a great scene where the Joker is ‘liberated’ from the police by a hoard of anti-capitalist protesters. They’ve picked him as their symbol, their representative. He has no fucking clue what’s going on but finds that he finally has an appreciative audience. Earlier on in the film he bombs horribly at a stand-up club and is then publicly mocked for it on De Niro’s TV show. But now everyone is cheering him. With blood on his face, he smears it over himself to make an even bigger smile. After all the false starts in the movie, is this his birth as the Joker?

I’m not sure how successful this film will be with audiences. When I went to see it, everyone seemed to trudge out in a stupor. But even though it has some serious flaws, I’m glad that a filmmaker and a studio has finally tried to do something different with a comic book movie. The Marvel films have become cinematic NyQuil, regularly putting me in a coma. Here we have a movie with an amazing central performance from Joaquin Phoenix that takes lots of lots of risks. Not everything pays off, and yes the movie is highly reminiscent of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, but give me this over The Avengers any day.

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  1. Glad to see you are writing these again!

    Having just seen the film, there are moments of incredible tension and dread all of the scenes you pointed out were excellent. Though I grapple with what the political message of this movie is?

    We've seen Heath Ledger's Joker, and that was heavily influenced by the Iraq War, and the broader war on terror...this one? Occupy Wall Street? The rise of the anti-capitalist left? Or maybe it's a critique on the Trump voters who chose a mad-man as their symbol in their hunger to destroy the system.

    I'm still thinking about the film an hour after having seen I guess it was an effective movie, if not a fully cohesive film.

    1. That's a great point about Trump voters. I was originally going to mention in my review how the protestors picking the Joker as their leader felt very much like the US picking Trump - that they literally made the worst possible choice they could; they picked the least capable person.

      But yeah, I think the broader message is how willing people are to make bad decisions. How they take their anger and unhappiness and funnel it into the most ill thought out conduit. Because yes, the racist, sexist egomaniac millionaire and the mentally disturbed loner are totally going to help you redeem the indignities of every day life and bring balance to these one-sided societies.