Comedy is subjective. This is the bi-line that runs through the veins of Joker – an artsy, gritty and intelligent take on the world-famous Batman villain.
Although one of the more anticipated films of the year, I approached Joker with a lot of cautious optimism. I was eager for a “comic-book” movie that takes it seriously yet bringing on the director of The Hangover movies raised alarm bells. As a disclaimer, this worry was unwarranted.
From the immediate start of the film, we are confronted with a skeletal figure in a dressing room, applying paint on his face in front of a mirror. Others chat away behind him, out of frame, yet he sits himself, separated. He begins practicing a cartoon-ish smile, and an over-dramatic frown, each pulled through a face expressing real pain. Sticking his fingers in his mouth he begins to force a smile, all the while a tear runs blue paint down his cheek. The intro to Joker, encapsulates the type of movie you are about to watch; a slow-burning drama about a man struggling in a society that doesn’t care.
First things first, Joaquin Phoenix delivers a truly powerhouse performance. He balances the anxiety and naïve kindness with an unhinged intensity. He is raw and visceral at times, and you would struggle to think of an actor that could bring that same level of heat to a role. There were moments where he was so unsettling, I actually felt myself becoming uncomfortable. While all secondary characters are great, this is entirely Phoenix’s film. Without his performance, a film like this would never have worked.
So what is all the controversy about? There have been rampant calls to censor this film over worries of inciting violent acts through the empathising with the psychotic killer. While, yes, you do route for this character and to a certain extent understand the motive behind some of his actions, you still don’t agree per se. The violence is dirty and impactful. As Arthur fires a bullet into the back of a man crawling away, I found myself flinching at the shot. It never glorifies any of the violence. There is a weight to each death in the film, in a way that not many films capture. Whereas there have been talk of desensitisation towards violence, this feels like a sensitisation. It takes it seriously in the only way that worked for this film. A censored film centred on the Joker, isn’t a true depiction of the Joker.
In contrast to all of that, I can understand why people wouldn’t like this film. Its serious and dark, and more in line with an Art-house film than a typical comic-book blockbuster. There are scenes that are quite esoteric, replacing the typical spoon-feeding of mainstream films. One such scene was the point in which a couple sitting next to me left the cinema, so it entirely depends on what you come to the film expecting. However, at times the film does feel slow. It never has the moment where Arthur Fleck becomes The Joker, rather a steadily evolving arc. Ultimately in the end, this slower approach is the crux of its impactful conclusion, yet I can’t deny at times I did wish it would pick up the pace a little.
Joker is likely a film that will leave many divided and be picked apart for years to come. I genuinely think this film could become a cult classic, as it is of its own, and something hardly seen in mainstream media. It is evocative, disturbing, thought-provoking and a true art-form of cinema.