Review: Joker (TIFF 2019)

joker bannerRead Paul Shirey’s take HERE!

PLOT: Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lonely, often bullied man living in squalor with this mother (Frances Conroy) in Gotham City. As the city’s gulf between the haves and have nots widens, Fleck’s fragile mindset teeters on the brink of insanity, threatening to set him off like a powder keg with disastrous consequences for both the city and anyone unlucky enough to be in his orbit.

REVIEW: People are not ready for JOKER. Everyone’s talking about this as a supervillain origin story, but that doesn’t do it justice, with this as unsettling a portrait of madness as any I’ve seen. It’s an ugly uncompromising R-rated psychological thriller that will leave many rattled and prove to be among the most provocative movies of the year. Of course, it’s a must-see.

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Directed by Todd Phillips is a style that will likely erase any memory of him as a comedy director, this gruelling drama is, as advertised, reminiscent of TAXI DRIVER and KING OF COMEDY, although the gritty style seems more in the vein of Sidney Lumet, while the uncompromising way the movie puts us squarely in the mindset of a remorseless killer brings to mind Michael Mann’s MANHUNTER, albeit without any heroes to save us.

For Joaquin Phoenix, it’s likely a signature role, with him as iconic as anyone who’s played the part before. It helps that his Joker has next to nothing in common with any version of the character we’ve seen before. There are no wisecracks, and the character is never made attractive in the way Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger were – basically, there are no scenes where Joker’s made to be cool.

If anything, we’re supposed to be repelled by this deeply unsettling character, who starts as a walking tragedy but becomes a monster beyond anyone’s sympathy, with the acts he commits in this far beyond what we’ve ever seen in a Batman movie. Handily earning its R-rating, a movie like this would never get made by a mainstream studio were it not for its roots in the Batman franchise, but it’s hard to watch this and ever imagine Warner Bros and DC folding Phoenix’s version into any of their PG-13 franchise films.

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Phoenix dominates the film so thoroughly it’s hard to single out the supporting cast, as good as they are, as everyone’s part, except Frances Conroy’s as his detached from reality mother, only ever exists in the orbit of the Joker. Thus, everyone’s screen time is surprisingly limited, including Zazie Beetz as his new neighbor, Robert De Niro as the talk show host he idolizes (who only really has one big scene) and Marc Maron, here in virtually a cameo. The threads connecting it to the Wayne family are there, including appearances by Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen – who amusingly also appeared in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES), Alfred (Douglas Hodge) and a young Bruce Wayne.

Outside of Phoenix, the film’s big signatures are the cinematography by Lawrence Sher, that could put him up there with the giants, Hildur Guðnadóttir’s (“Chernobyl”) score, and of course Philips, who offers up some chilling moments depicting the ecstasy Joker feels when he’s at his most murderous (including a showstopping moment set to Gary Glitter’s “Rock n’ Roll Part 2”).

Certainly, JOKER is the film to see this fall, and one that will no doubt become the water cooler event of the year, and the one everyone will have an opinion on. It’s probably the most provocative, uncompromising American movie to be made since FIRST REFORMED, the difference being more people will see this in a day than did during that film’s entire run. Such is the power of comic book movies. If you think, with Christopher Nolan, you saw the darkest version of the Batman universe you’d ever really get, think again.