I’ll stay away from spoilers and plot points so that you can enjoy the twists and turns. What follows are some general observations.
From the outset, we know that we’re in the early 1980s. The logo used to open the movie, the lack of mobile phones and the cars that appear set the time frame clearly. People are also smoking cigarettes!
It feels like Gotham. The architecture and the music are all very Gotham-like. Further enhanced visually by mismatched colours and tiles, graffiti and general grime, the units, busses and trains tell a tale of Gotham in decline.
There’s a garbage strike, tales of large rats and simmering tensions between the haves and the have nots. People are feeling lost and victimised. We are told through the characters that people are getting crazier. People are looking for someone to light the fuse…
Enter Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). Living with his mother, his form of Tourette’s Syndrome means he laughs during moments of sadness or stress. This certainly spices up some already challenging situations through the movie! His day job is that of a clown for hire – twirling an advertising board at the front of a business and bringing comfort to sick children. He is also an aspiring stand-up comedian, keeping his ideas for jokes in a notebook – that is actually a confronting journal that he is to keep for his counsellor.
Fleck is on seven different forms of medication and attends counselling sessions. However, with government cutbacks, both of these are withdrawn.
His life is further complicated by some really complex and tragic events – few of which are directly of his doing, some of which occur because of his decisions or mistakes, some because he is bullied and beaten up.
When the tipping point comes, it is done with a metamorphosing swagger that is memorable and Joker is front and centre. Everything changes at this point, as Joker takes over.
Many times during the movie I was holding my breath in anticipation of what was to occur. Most times I was wrong…
There is some challenging violence. However, it is brief, brutal and crucial to the storyline. Many other movies can learn from the lack of gratuitous violence and stomach turning gore.
It is beautifully shot, with the camera kept close on Phoenix. This allows us to walk alongside his character as he faces an extremely long list of challenging circumstances. His acting is nothing short of brilliant – the laughing until it hurts; the looks that convey complex and conflicting emotions; the often twitchy movements; the shift in his character from Fleck to Joker; the occasional dancing that allows us to keep seeing him as human; and the way that he is painfully thin.
I appreciated the way that something so simple as a flight of stairs were used to convey the change from Fleck to Joker. It is another example of how clever cinematography can convey meaning. Also, Fleck is always in shoes that are too large – Joker is always lurking there somewhere.
This movie has drawn criticism for the way that it portrays mental illness and civil unrest. As for the latter, the nightly news gives people more access to it. As for the former, there are some crucial elements that form a cautionary tale – lack of access to counselling and support; self-removing oneself from medication; and cutting government funding in care programs.
There are a number of significant twists in the tale that are quite breath-taking. The Wayne family feature in a different light. We see Thomas Wayne as being far from a saint and there is an excellent tie-in to Bruce Wayne.
Parallels have been drawn to the movie “Taxi Driver” and this is apt. There are many elements of that film that are used to great effect. You can see this as a positive or a negative – they work well again, but the contrasting opinion is that the techniques have been done before and that this is nothing new.
The pacing of the movie is excellent, with the whole journey being a slow burn, with many moments of tightening tension along the way. It is also quite short – well less than 2 hours. Just as I was getting itchy, things got raucous on the way to the ending.
There’s also a wonderful muddying of the tale, where for a good while you can’t be sure of what has happened in Fleck’s life.
Todd Phillips directed the films “The Hangover” and “Road Trip”, so I was intrigued to see his take on this subject. He is to be applauded for his vision and for keeping this tight all the way through. However, some of the techniques that whilst they are powerful, they are done a few times and lose their impact.
As I walked out, I was feeling intrigued and unsettled. I saw the movie with one of my daughters, who almost matches me for my love of these franchises and for the meaning behind the tale. We debated it long and loud and I suspect that we will for a while longer, as well as seeing the movie multiple times to enjoy the cleverness of it.
I also have no doubt that it will be polarising. Some people will HATE it.
Not this Joker.