Saturday, October 19, 2019
Ever since Christopher Nolan completed his final installment of The Dark Knight trilogy, cinematic adaptations of DC comics have failed to capture the zeitgeist in contemporary film culture. While the rival Marvel Cinematic Universe has soared to unprecedented heights, the DCEU has been criticized for their super-serious, dark aesthetic which turned even the squeaky clean Superman into an agent of chaos. Rather than embrace the "comic" nature of their origins, however, DC films have instead doubled down on their dark, gritty house style. Indeed DC has even dedicated entire films to villains, including "Suicide Squad" and now, "Joker". As directed by Todd Phillips, this bleak character study is the first under the proposed DC Black banner and it is arguably the most accomplished - and most problematic - DC film of the post-Nolan era.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a lonely and mentally ill resident of a decaying Gotham city. His days are filled with caring for his ailing mother, going to therapy sessions and making a living as a party clown. But his big dream is to become a standup comedian. While he aspires to be like the successful talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a disorder that causes him to laugh uncontrollably attracts the ridicule of his intolerant society. Unable to cope with the fading possibilities of fulfilling his dreams and suffering the abuse from various sources, Arthur turns to a life of crime and embraces the alias of Joker.
As Arthur "breaks bad", both actor and director fully commit to the film's unsettling premise. In one of the most striking performances of the year, Joaquin Phoenix is at once grotesque and sympathetic. As he breaks into spontaneous laughter and contorts his emaciated body, he strikes fear into the audience long before he turns to violence. But what makes the performance so compelling - and a surefire Best Actor contender - is its vulnerability. Phoenix conveys a deep pain in his quest for acceptance, thereby humanizing this iconic villain like never before.
Indeed, Phillips and Scott Silver's script works overtime to generate audience sympathy for its protagonist. Arthur receives virtually no kindness from any of the named supporting characters, and the world created is oppressively bleak. You can practically smell the conspicuous garbage on the streets, while almost every surface seems to be covered in graffiti. In crafting this palpable atmosphere, there's no denying that this version of Gotham city is a stand-in for 1980s New York City.
The "Taxi Driver" inspirations are therefore obvious, but unfortunately, the film's social commentary is too broad to truly add a fresh perspective. Despite its best attempts - such as the inclusion of a pompous, Trump-like Thomas Wayne character - the script lacks the nuance of Hildur Guðnadóttir's evocative score as it charts Arthur Fleck's disturbing transformation. As such, the implications that the Joker's violent acts are part of a larger, justified revolution fail to ring true.
Ultimately, "Joker" won't be winning any prizes for original storytelling. But in its strongest moments, this likely contender for Best Picture and Best Director touches on some important issues surrounding mental health, conveyed through a central performance that's hard to shake. In our contemporary landscape of formulaic superhero films, this challenging cinematic vision is definitely worth your consideration.