FILM REVIEW “JOKER” - MORE THAN JUST CLOWNING AROUND
If you don't follow the Batman franchise, Joker can stand alone and be the better for it. The Joker as a Batman adversary could never be more complicated that the caped crusader himself without throwing the story out of balance. And the movie Batman was scarcely less substantial than the Batman in his comic origins.
Released from this stranglehold, the Joker can be enlarged with some depth and be given a real back story and a real psychology. The film fully exploits these possibilities. It is a bit like the way the Ramones took the bubblegum pop of the 60s put a rocket up its arse and made it into a deafening subversive pivotal movement. Bubblegum begat punk. So the shallow cartoon adversary of Batman's Joker begets the maniacal, deranged juggernaut in Todd Philip's reconjuring.
The back story concerns his devotion to his beloved mother. I don't want to burden anyone with a spoiler about what this really means so will say no more on this. The psychological back story is more central and is already flagged up in the irony contained in the film's title. It explores how too much literally playing the clown can lead to the moulding of a rampant clown, where sorrow and self pity, play with the absolute denial of the guise to produce pessimism and violence,
Joachim Phoenix first came to our attention as the unhinged Commodus in Gladiator and so we know he can do crazy. Here he doubles down on an inwardly perturbed psychic personality to make the transformation from paper thin to more than solid freakshow. The actor lost not just fat but body mass to turn his torso into a skeletal wreck. Our first glimpse of his naked torso with protruding vertebrae, seemingly dislocating shoulders and his stomach hollowed out leaving his rib cage hanging in mid air, take you aback and confirms the film's intentions are truly for real – and not just Oscar directed.
The moment at his counsellor’s when he realizes that society will no longer afford to pay for his kind of problem and is casting him adrift when his face and demeanour about change before our eyes is an overpowering piece of acting and it sets the scene for the action to follow without a word being said
Meme of the day
The story ostensibly takes place sometime in a remote pre-1G past but early on the state of the streets brings us up to this minute. Garbage is filling the sidewalks alongside feral humanity. But that was not then, but it is now in major US cities, as inequality and rule by a parasitic elite take hold, the results pile up in public places - and no one can or will do anything. But where the US leads the UK follows and there is plenty of evidence we are not far behind in this. The riots and protests shown in the film correspond more to now than to then.
The riots in Joker seem like a background chimera but protests today, even if they have an underlying justification, are equally devoid of real driving ideals. The occupy movement, which fizzled out through lack of real purchase on our problems, is the one the clown rioters inevitably evoke most with the use of similar masks - the separation between a clown mask and a Guy Fawkes mask being uncomfortably close. And the sinister masked rioters today in Hong Kong equally lack any recognizable political purpose. The latter may be foreign agents but that does not undermine the parallel. The noisy but shallow masquerades of the Extinction Rebellion movement certainly are evoked by the film with their infantile agenda, hollowed-out messaging and ill-aimed disruption. All these make a hideously warped comment on genuine, radically, street protest.
But that is the point about Joker. It is a newsreel - nothing more - for times when we have long lost the different between reel and real. It is what post-modern protest looks like – some of the trappings but none of the content. An anonymous protester is not a protester at all – but purely an actor, in both senses of the word.
This film could not have been made five years ago for the material it addresses was hardly there. So it functions, not just an idle prequel to a Bat story, but also as a prequel to contemporary times, and, in doing so, becomes more than a parable for our times. Times change. They will move on and Joker may date leaving people wondering what all the fuss was about. But, right now, it is right on the nail
Phoenix does not just do the acting heavy lifting, he does all the lifting with little help from the part of his mother although in truth her character gains more dimension from events we don't see than those she actually plays in. The romantic interest is unnecessary and unbelievable and sadly all too obviously there for box office reasons – or, more generously, to relieve some of the darkness. And the so-called "rich", the targets of the clown, could have easily have been played by any interchangeable Baldwin brother. De Niro has long ago given up playing anything but de Niro and, as such, his presence seems like a private intrusion on public art. The players of the bits part, such as his counsellor and co-clown workers, are more memorable. But Phoenix is always going to upstage the lot of them.
The power comes from its truth to today and its addiction to now. Joker's killings may be arbitrary but somehow the movement they spawn is not so. Joker is the hairspring that released them
Joker is holding up a mirror to ourselves and our society. It may belong in a fairground House of Mirrors but it is a mirror nevertheless and like the House of Mirrors contains multiple distortions and revealings. That is its strength and is why it stays with you. It has defined something new and true. And it has suggested a new way, or maybe revived an old way, of surreal yet hyperreal cinema.
And it is cinema strictly as magnificent art in the music, central performance, sets and choreography. It is certainly the film of the year 2019. Sometime later it will be clearer precisely why
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