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REVIEW: JOKER (2019) (film)

Director: Todd Phillips
Writers: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz
Runtime: 122 minutes
Language: English


There are precious few major films that rise to the level of art in the current decade, so when one comes along, it is not surprising that people would flock to it to slake their cultural gullets.  What passes for film in recent years is little more than political propaganda with a slew of demographic tick boxes to fill.

In a bygone era, Joker would have been an above-average psychological thrill.  In the current environment, it is an oasis of cool, fresh water in a vast, barren wasteland, with an intentional allusion to t. s. eliot with, at least to this reviews mind, more than casual alignments between the names Arthur Fleck and J. Alfred Prufrock.  Heck, we might even shoehorn in Fitzgerald with Thomas Wayne being a Gatsby-esque character.  This doesn't stretch credulity given the literacy displayed in the film.

Arthur Fleck, a name which can be interpreted as "noble stain," is a giggling, pathologically self-tormenting mess.  We meet him at the outset in a mental ward during a session with his therapist.  The story then appears to retell his journey to this point in flashback, but at the end, the writers yank the rug out from under the audience: was the entire story a series of homicidal fantasies played out in Arthur's head, or an actual retelling, or a mix of reality and perverse wishful thinking?  That the audience is allowed to decide for themselves is a refreshing resolution in the age of proverbial clubs beating us over the head with "messages".

The real world of Joker (or is it) is a stark, gray dystopia in the vein of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four, where nothing makes sense.  The characters feel trapped in a world of their own making, unable to see the obvious solutions and unwilling to try.  Feeling trapped in a hell of their own making, they each strike back in their own small ways, with the result of growing social dissatisfaction that eats away at cultural cohesion.  We have single-parent families that chose their fate, talk-show hosts without empathy, comedians who aren't funny, philanthropists with ulterior motives, class envy, none of which seem insurmountable taken in isolation, but the cumulative effect is the complete dissolution of polite society.  The result is utter chaos by the film's end, and Arthur is it's symbolic hero.

Artistically, this film is remarkable for its Kubrick-eque compositions, Scorsese's dispassionate regard for violence, a thorough understanding of Kuleshov, and enough homages to fill a train car.  I spotted Falling Down Taxi Driver, Citizen Kane, Rocky, Apocalypse Now, and Scarface, all wonderfully flipped on their heads, and that was just one viewing.  There are probably many more I didn't catch the first time.  What is more intriguing is that this film didn't feel trite or derivative.  The borrowed scenes were skillfully bent to new purposes and subtly rendered.

The story is strongly influenced by Albert Camus' The Stranger, with many similar plot beats and the same dissolution of the character into his own antithesis.  The film opens and closes with Arthur as Meursault post trial, while the body of the film explores Meursault's pre-trial existence.  What is refreshing is that writer/director Todd Phillips leaves the post-trial part of the story to the audience to complete.

To say Joaquin Phoenix' acting is superb is understated.  It is rare to see an actor so absorbed in the character that every blink of the eyes is infused with meaning and purpose.  He performs so skillfully that the audience is forced to identify with an anti-hero that defies all norms of behavior.  In the end, we almost want to join the mob in cheering for Arthur, while reviling ourselves for feeling that way.  It is fascinating, in the same way car wrecks are, to watch Arthur merge with his clown persona until there is no difference between the man and the mask.

Up to this point, I have avoided the issue of comic book films, of which this is definitely not one.  It references the Batman story line, and the Joker character here can be seen as an extension of Heath Leger's Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, but we shouldn't push such comparisons beyond the superficial.  This is not a "comic book" movie and the only hero in the film is sadly bent and warped beyond the breaking point.

The story is made almost whole cloth from a handful of settings and supporting characters.  The plot is a psychological thriller of the highest order, without reference to any of the 80-odd years of comic canon.  There is no Batman, though we briefly meet the Wayne family and their storied demise.  There is no Commissioner Gordon or Harvey Dent or faithful Alfred.  Thomas Wayne is running for mayor of Gotham, which to my knowledge is not part of the DC Universe.  Even the name Arthur Fleck is new to the character's biography.

The end effect is that the story hints at a wider universe, but we are encouraged to let go of that world and focus on the decline and fall of the central character.  This can't even be said to be a fictional biopic, since the twist makes us unsure whether any of it exists in a "real" world, at all.  Instead, we witness how a character thinks he got to where he is, trying to excuse his actions (if he actually did any of them) with a series of injustices against him.

The moral ambiguity and apolitical view of the film are its most interesting features.  There is no judgement made for the audience.  We are supposed to justify or vilify the central character based on our own sensibilities.  This is precisely the kind of storytelling so desperately missing from Hollywood of the 21st century.  If anything, the film holds up a mirror to society and shows us what the likely result will be of our current divisiveness and polarization.  In fact, it is the mirroring of an inherently evil character as a sympathetic anti-hero that encourages this view.

It is hard to say this is an enjoyable film, but it is a necessary one, both to see and to have been made.  It is an allegory in the finest tradition.  It is an exploration of soul and mind.  It is a clear-eyed look at cultural dissolution.  It is masterfully written and crafted, with the audio, visuals and words telling distinct but  closely interwoven stories.  It is nihilistic while not being hopelessly so.  It is existentialist, while citing overwhelming exterior forces shaping and forcing certain key decisions.  It is quite interesting how this film mixes so many opposites so well, without ever becoming preachy or judgmental.

Fleck is clearly a victim, but he never loses his agency.  He makes his own choices, albeit through a warped and clouded weltanschauung.  It's hard to tell at which exact point I was aware of this manipulation, but once I saw it, it intrigued me and drew me deeper into the story, because it was so unusual in modern cinema.  Like Rick in Casablanca, Fleck is making clearly unethical and immoral choices, but we almost forgive him for it, due to the circumstances swirling around him.  There is a subtle acknowledgement that a war is being waged, and war requires ethics and morals to be put aside.

In the literary vein, we also catch sight of Les Miserables (the book, not the vanilla musical), with Fleck the antithesis of Jean Valjean, redeemed but in a perverse and horrifying way.  We might even draw a parallel with Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, with society itself in the role of Victor Frankenstein, and Fleck its hapless creation.

At the end, I was not only left wondering if any part of the story was "real," but also - and far more rarely - I wanted more.  I didn't leave feeling like I had been beaten over the head with someone's political views, but rather that I was granted a glimpse into a madman's head from a safe distance, all the while feeling sorry for the miserable wretch, even as I found him abhorrent.

This is a bizarrely satisfying movie, unlike anything in recent history.  It's uniqueness is reflected in its billion-dollar earnings for a film with almost no CGI or non-realistic scenes.  Global audiences are obviously hungry for good and original storytelling in a world untouched by computers.

In fact, one might notice that the world of Joker is the 1970s America.  There are no computers or cell phones.  Cars are of classic designs.  There are no LED signs or other objects of the digital age.  This world is completely real, or perhaps unreal, as the case may be.  Every element on-screen is timeless and even a bit surreal.

I highly recommend this film to anyone with adult sensibilities, both for its masterful storytelling, and for its cinematographic artistry.  Filmophiles will find plenty of allusions to chew on, and literary-minded folks will see elements of several great novels and epic poems.  In modern cinema, I might see these elements as mistakes or accidental, but here there are so many clear allusions so deftly woven in that I must conclude it is deliberate and considered.

Unlike so much of contemporary cinema, this story has meat on the bone and bears up to repeated watching to peel away the layers of meaning.  This is probably the ONLY major studio film of the last decade that I will consider buying for my collection.

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