Directed by Todd Phillips
Let’s get this out of the way up front. Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” in terms of film-craft, atmosphere, focus, and performance, is one of the greatest films of this decade. Maybe any decade. That statement, while obviously extremely subjective, is not hyperbole. It looks and, more importantly, feels like a classic from another time, it sticks to its objectives like glue, and Joaquin Phoenix gives the performance of a generation. Which then begs the question, does “Joker” matter in the way great films do…which is to say, will it connect with us, in a way that refuses to leave, for years and decades to come… or is it simply an exercise in how to brilliantly write, create, direct and act in a movie?
You will hear many people arguing for and against – mostly against from what I’ve read – pointing to what they perceive as the film’s message. Some people will only see a political message of societal incitement believing it to be a direct reaction to our current governmental failings…a message I thought was tremendously overshadowed by more internal elements. Some have said it incites violence, which I believe to be ridiculous, and a means for those too uncomfortable to actually see Phoenix’ Arthur Fleck, to deflect from looking too deeply at their own actions and perceptions in the film’s mirror. Some will pass it off as another superhero film, which is, of course, patently absurd. That would be like calling “Raging Bull” a mere boxing flick. And still others will simply refuse to see it because of its depictions of violence. It is no more or less violent than any other film that is popular these days. It’s just that the violence in this film comes from a place deep within the character…a place we, as the audience, get to both empathize with and revile. In other words, the violence in this film FEELS real.
No, to me, at the heart of “Joker”, is one of the truest representations of the horrendous effects of trauma, psychosis and abject loneliness that afflicts a single individual I’ve ever seen…a lone individual in a gigantic megalopolis – which looks and feels a whole lot like the New York of the mid-seventies…broke, dirty, and tremendously frightening. This is a man who is utterly underrepresented, can find not an iota of empathy from those around him and is consistently shoehorned in to the city’s ugly underneath. If it sounds like I’m describing Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro’s character in “Taxi Driver”), well, I am…to an extent. But Arthur, unlike Travis, is not a nihilist. He is not merely tired of things as they are. He is moving forward in the only way one can when all pathways to hope have been cut off. His neuronal pathways, such as they are, are not able to re-wire in the “put one foot in front of the other” manner we who are not as traumatized, are so accustomed to. One of the great strengths of the film is that we root like hell for this poor, horrible, wretch, and I, for one, was utterly devastated leading in to the film’s third act…in a way I probably haven’t been since “One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest” (not that they are in ANY WAY comparable in terms of plot or structure, so no spoilers there).
And the touchstone throughout is Mr. Phoenix. It is a work of such thorough conviction, Phoenix simply disappears within seconds of our introduction. His journey is specific and believable, moving as it does completely within Arthur’s inner world, emotional struggles, simple human desires, clinical obstructions and inescapable rage tinged with sadness. Yet he isn’t without aspirations…in fact, it is those aspirations that are what make the film move toward its inexorable third act. But mere sympathy for him is never in the discussion. You FEEL his wins and losses…you understand the weight of his loneliness, the manner in which he is misunderstood and how desperate he is to bring joy to a world that isn’t interested. At least, I hope you do. Otherwise, that says way more about me than I’m comfortable to admit. But seriously, if he is denied awards because Academy, SAG or Globe voters “refuse” to see the film (as many have declared), well, that would be a travesty. I can’t stress this enough: it’s simply a breathtaking achievement worthy of our highest accolades. And that I don’t go in to detail about the rest of the cast should not be taken as minimizing their contributions. DeNiro is fine, as are Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Sharon Washington, Brian Tyree Henry and the ALWAYS great Glenn Fleshler. But they serve a different purpose…less characters in a film and more shadows that move in and out of Arthur’s world.
But let’s not, in any way, allow Phoenix’ brilliance to overshadow the accomplishments of director Todd Phillips. Never afraid to veer far from safety, Phillips (along with co-writer Scott Silver) has given us a portrait of a man on the edge for the ages. Every aspect of the film’s production is on point…neither detracting nor distracting from Fleck’s world. He also never let’s us off the hook. We are forced to share every second of the film with a man that every character in the movie dismisses or disparages – just as we would in real life (hence the mirror I mentioned earlier). Every shot in the film, due to the brilliant work of cinematographer, Lawrence Sher, is as emotionally connected as can be. The design, aided by Mark Friedberg and art director, Laura Ballinger, is painstakingly detailed – down to the inclusion, or lack thereof, of individual colors…preferring to hold off on their use for specific purposes and moments. More importantly, this IS the scary city of my youth – NYC in the seventies and eighties. Even the radio jingles are direct from the time period. You can almost hear Koch asking how he’s doing, see the New York Post headlines which quoted (incorrectly) then President Ford as saying “New York Can Drop Dead!” rather than help keep the bankrupt city from defaulting, smell the garbage from the Great Garbage Strike of 1981, and, most importantly, sense the dread that came with riding the graffiti-covered subway trains and stations in those troubled times. It’s a work of historical art. And then there is the score from Johann Johannsson’s former collaborator turned terrific composer in her own right, Hildur Guðnadóttir. Like her recent compositions for “Chernobyl”, it is haunting, evocative, and gorgeous. In a nutshell, it is both terribly sad and challenging chamber/choral music.
There are teeny tiny problems with its length, and the structure of some of the film’s later scenes is odd. But MUCH more importantly…and to answer the initial question…I think the film matters greatly and in a way that makes it worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as earlier masterworks. There are scenes in this film, and not the big flashy ones, but the quiet heartbreaking and terrifying ones, that will haunt me forever, mostly because of how it spoke to me specifically…spoke to my experiences as a tiny unit in a giant machine and connected me with my emotional reaction to the society we live in. And, maybe more importantly, the film is quick to remind us that while we may have sincere sympathy for those who live in a prison of their own minds, standing on the street corners of Chicago asking for help, it abjectly calls us out on our lack of action to do anything about it…because, well, “thank god I’m not them”.
Yeah. I feel pretty comfortable declaring “Joker” to be a masterpiece of the American Cinema.
This trailer, while possessing no plot spoilers, does venture in to territory I wouldn’t want to have known prior to screening the film: