Film review: Joaquin Phoenix's Joker astonishing
Phoenix turns in the visual performance of a lifetime in Joker, finds David Light
THERE HAVE BEEN few films, which have seemingly elated nearly all who have taken in the 122-minute event, only to then receive a surprise backlash even before the first weekend box office results have come in. A standing ovation and Golden Lion at the 76th Venice International Film Festival have been followed by professional criticism chiefly focusing on the movie's violence (which really shouldn't come as any shock given the work's rating). Such divisiveness is perhaps apt, however, given the picture's not too subtle and brilliant reflection of our current enduring social imbalance.
As Gotham descends into chaos, incendiary lines are drawn between the bullish, archaic billionaire Mayoral candidate, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), and a minority of residents neglected by the city's crumbling infrastructure who have taken to the streets. Both sides, with their inflammatory rhetoric and ambivalence to public decency, create a morality vacuum allowing, or almost encouraging the appalling prosper. At the core sits Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a jobbing clown suffering from mental illness for which his government mandated support is quickly withdrawn. Without help and medication, Fleck's condition accelerates leading him to lose his regular gig at a children's hospital and embark on a life of serious crime, aggression and brutality. His descent is sharp, instigated by taking on three wealthy, boorish Wayne-affiliated traders riding the subway whilst still wearing his red nose and makeup. The act captures the already riotous deprived mob's imagination, and 'Joker' becomes the poster boy for deplorable action. This is where a few negative critics, we feel, have been misguided in their admonition. Joker is not our, the audiences', hero. He is a totem for the personalities portrayed in the film, which should have been consigned to the annals of history: the hooligans, the thugs, those incapable of reasoned debate and progress. As viewers we are taken aback by Fleck's grotesque transformation and subsequent idolisation by those who are at best desperate to the point of uncontrollable fury and at worst actually criminal. Like other dystopian features, it is a study in what could, but should never occur.
Yet, what is truly remarkable is the physicality Phoenix lends to the character examination of a middle-aged sufferer of acute lifelong mental anguish. From the first second when Joker's notorious laugh is explained as an affliction - triggered by both pain and joy - to the disturbing interpretations of traditional clown movements the actor chooses to employ, right down to the infantile run of a person denied a childhood, it is a triumphant performance in what is an accessible, nuanced Todd Phillips masterpiece.