I deeply dislike Batman. Actually that isn’t true. I liked Batman when it was Adam West and Burt Ward. Who couldn’t love the cheesy “Pow” and “Zok” as the heroic duo fought crime in a fun and fantastical way… It’s only later on that I grew to despise the whining Bruce Wayne and his “boohoo I’m an orphan, but I am mega rich and can afford to do anything I like, yet I will walk around hating everything and being moody, then I will make myself a superhero, because I am rich enough to buy anything I want, but then I will still fight crime in a moody fashion”.
It is this hatred that had made me shy away from Batman films generally, with exception of “The Dark Knight” and frankly Heath Ledger as Joker made that film. So anyone trying to live up to that performance of this deeply complex character really had to go some in my world. I walked in to this movie ready to hate Joaquin Phoenix in this role… but actually he was incredible. I have to say here that I was contacted by more than a handful of people, asking when my review of this film would be out, which is actually why I went to see this film, otherwise I would have likely waited to see it at home.
This movie is nothing like you would imagine from a comic book villain film, and it also very new out, therefore I am not going to give a breakdown of the plot, but there are elements of the film which will include spoilers, so if you think that I may ruin this for you, please look away now, but come on back and let me know what you thought after you have seen the film.
Mental health is a huge and overpowering element in this film, which is equally joyous and chilling to watch. Joker suffers from delusional psychosis and and psychopathic tendencies, we see him mimicking movements and emotions of people and pictures around him, and there is a whole relationship which is in his head. Usually in a film like this, the mental health element of this would be brushed over for the purpose of villainising the character, but Todd Phillips (director) has made this the forefront of the movie. One of the most heartbreaking but most genuine thing said in this film is actually something scrawled across Joker’s journal…”The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave like you don’t”…never a truer word was said in jest. I think the importance of how others around this character demean or ignore the evident struggles he goes through, simply highlights how underestimated mental health really is in society.
Then there is that laugh, Phoenix has developed a painful, disruptive, hard to watch guttural laugh that looks like a child who is in extreme pain. This laugh presents itself when in awkward or difficult situations, which is a clear cut differentiation from his much quieter and calmer chuckle when he finds something genuinely funny. The laugh, if we want to talk in mental health terms is a deflective tick to distract from the real emotion that Joker aka Arthur Fleck is feeling, but this makes for hard watching which adds to the sympathy for this character as he fumbles his way through a life of misery.
Phoenix lost 52 pounds to play this role, which has given his body a terrible gaunt shape, which is only exaggerated as you see him do some slow and extended dance routines taken from the likes of Ray Bolger, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. This just adds to the disturbed and twisted mind that starts to come through as Arthur stops taking his medication.
There is quite a lot references to Charlie Chaplin within this film; which may sound odd, but Chaplin’s early life was was hard. There is no official record of his birth. He lived with his mother and had an absent father, he was sent to a workhouse twice before the age of 9 and at 14 his mother was sent to an asylum. His father (while he was present) became the legal guardian of Chaplin’s illegitimate sister. While Chaplin’s mother and father became estranged they never divorced, but she had a third child by a music hall entertainer Leo Dryden, who took the child away and Chaplin didn’t see his brother for 30 years (does this sound familiar?).
Chaplin also wrote the song “Smile though your heart is breaking” which seems to be an ongoing theme within the film, and the song is played over one of the scenes. Chaplin’s sister was also sent to an asylum suffering severe psychosis after contracting syphilis. The echoes of this icons life are emblazoned into this fully developed character.
There is something that you need to make your own decision on within this film which is… Does Arthur crave the limelight or is it decency and acceptance that he really wants? I don’t think I am spoiling anything by saying that Arthur will ultimately turn in to the Joker that we all know and love, but for me the character is desperate for acceptance and understanding, which he ultimately gets from the rioting crowd, their acceptance of his actions making him finally feel that he has found his place, but others have mentioned to me that he is looking for the limelight… I am less sure that he is.
I am going to talk about De Niro in this film briefly. I was not overly happy with this casting. His rendition of Murray Franklin was not dry enough for my liking. For me, he needed to present a sardonic wit which simply wasn’t present in this character. This just felt that De Niro had been thrown in as another large name, just in case the film faltered in box office sales.
Finally I am going to talk about Todd Phillips. Where the hell have you been hiding this talent? You might remember him from the Hangover trilogy and Due Date. So to go from putz comedy to this highly educated and visually lush film is a shocker. I was not prepared for full immersion in 1960s Gotham City, the stunning camera work and ideally selected score. The nods to previous Joker’s as the make up changed and the music score included hints towards the Christopher Nolan soundtrack, this is a joy to watch even if the character portrayal is eerie and haunting.
If you haven’t already seen this film, I would urge you to do so, even if, like me you don’t like Batman.
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