Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Joker

Spoiler-free!

What I expected to be a dark and disturbing downer meant to leave me unsettled and unhappy, is instead an intense and scrutinizing look at a descent into madness and villainy, so thorough and unflinching that one can't help but see a reflection of themselves hidden within the frames. In a day when movies about villains are just movies about anti-heroes, and comic book movies are more commodity than art, Joker reminds us of how relevant and uniquely valuable a medium they can be.

Directed captivatingly by Todd Phillips, written along with Scott Silver.

Joaquin Phoenix takes on the role of the iconic villain in the rich setting of late 70's/early 80's Gotham City. Arthur Fleck is clown-for-hire striving to keep smiling in a rough and messed-up world. In gradual progression, the film shows us what it takes to transform him into the Joker that we know and love. The journey is too long and complex to break down, but the important thing is the way it draws you in to start. Though we know his villainous fate, we must be invested in the decent -- to take the ride along with him -- for the movie to make the impact it desires. Two or three scenes hook you at the beginning, and then the slow reeling in process begins.

I think it's wonderful that this film is making people angry. I can only imagine it's a visceral reaction to having a mirror thrust so unexpectedly in their face and showing them something that they don't want to recognize. I found myself doing a little soul-searching last night, that's for sure. But though this film is politicized, it isn't political. It doesn't show left and right, but rather an up and down balance of right and wrong. Gotham politics are similar to the divide and unrest in the real world today, but they are grown in an organic fictional environment rather than being transplanted to invoke cheap parallels. The fictionalization and over-the-top comic book style makes the open exploration on ideas palatable to a potentially stubborn audience -- exploring all sides of questions that we might otherwise dismiss offhand.

This is not a Conservative film; it doesn't push propaganda of any kind. But it does feel out of place with Hollywood content common to today.

People keep saying they handled mental illness badly in this film, and I'm not sure what they mean by it. What I saw was the subject being handled with care, and like the rest of the film's subjects, being explored from all sides. I found Arthur's illness to be the most constant source of empathy throughout his descent. Particularly the condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably when he feels entirely different. Everyone asks him, "What's so funny?" never understanding his mind as we do. Makes you think twice about judging people based on assumptions and appearances. In fact, the film refrains from any kind of judgement altogether, counting on the audience's moral compass to draw the right conclusion. The movie itself embraces the madness -- but never glorifies it. Every beautiful moment has horror in it, and every horrible moment, tenderness. There is always a balance of tone and no idea is presented without being challenged.

Phoenix's performance is precise and extreme; he runs wild with an exact and calculated grace and balances the evil and the good side by side with great skill. No one could doubt that he can play a scene with honesty and complexity; what's remarkable about this performance is the characterization: The way he runs. The way he laughs. The way he dances. The way he sees himself in his imagination. The twisted glee that pokes through his shell before it bursts out of him like a shot and blossoms into the full-fledged character with immaculate timing. To be honest, I expected his take to be more of a twist on the character, so seeing him open into full Joker so effortlessly once everything was properly developed was nothing short of astounding. It's the best performance of the year, but it's also one of the most full and complete performances I've ever seen. It's immensely satisfying, heartbreaking, and glorious.

Supporting actors include Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen and Shea Whigham. They are all great, but this is Phoenix's movie. 

The imagery of the movie is beautiful, as many movies are, but sets itself apart by serving to elevate the film beyond making it look nice. Framing is all about evoking a visceral response, and colors used to convey emotion. Sets and lighting play their part in setting the right mood too. Gotham has never been more beautiful, looming, bold, or grimy. Scenes are filmed with purpose behind the structure, and the effect is that the film feels richer, and more focused. Intentional. My favorite, and perhaps the most obvious example, is the huge flight of stairs Arthur must traverse to go home every day. He trudges up them in weighty gloom day after day -- until he snaps, and dances down them, having embraced the new life he's descending towards.

I've heard Joker declared to be not really a comic book movie at all, and though it isn't what is currently expected of CBM's, being free of action sequences and the narrative structure of good fighting evil, it's not true that it's a basic, "one man's descent into madness." Since when was being a popcorn movie a requirement of CBM's, anyway? DC especially has a dark richness to it that practically begs for serious and introspective character studies like this one. Iconic characters and fleshed-out fictional worlds used to examine truths, ideas, and perspectives -- without the baggage of reality -- in vivid color, and that heightened aspect that comic books provide so effortlessly. Through the lens of a comic book, this tragedy becomes art in a way it never could otherwise.

If DC continues in this direction instead of blindly following the MCU, we're in for a treat. 

Comic book films can be a lot of different things, and I'm glad to see that they haven't become completely pigeonholed yet. Joker is a difficult movie. Not so much because it's dark with disturbing aspects and a bleak ending. In fact, the ending isn't bleak at all, but you'd have to see the film to understand my meaning on that. Joker is difficult because it challenges you in ways you might not be prepared for; and connects with you in the same surprising manner. It moved me deeply, and I can't believe I'm saying this, but I cannot wait to go through it again. No, it's not bleak; it compels you to search for hope.

4 comments:

  1. Someday -- many, many, many years from now -- I want to watch this movie. Excellent review, as always.

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    1. I hope you enjoy when you do! It definitely wasn't as hard to watch as I was expecting. Thanks Olivia!!

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  2. I may watch this movie. I like a movie that makes me think.
    I haven't been watching many movies lately because I've mostly been watching Tv Shows. Mainly Battlestar Galactica, and I've also been watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (though I'm REALLY behind), and I just started watching Lucifer and Once Upon A Time.

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    1. Cool I hope you enjoy if/when you do! Definitely a thinker in my opinion, and worth squeezing in between TV shows. I know how consuming they can get lol!

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