Joker (2019)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on October 17, 2019 @ tonymacklin.net.

I thought there was no reason at all in 2019 for making another film featuring the character The Joker. It had been done, and reached its apogee in the past.

Cesar Romero camped it up as The Joker in a television series (1966-68) and a film Batman: The Movie (1966). Jack Nicholson nailed the role in Tim Burton's Batman (1989). There was no further reason to personify the character.

But Heath Ledger outdid Jack Nicholson. What a concept. He transcended Nicholson's iconic performance when he portrayed The Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008). Ledger posthumously won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Ledger had reached the pinnacle. Others tried, but there was absolutely no reason for another Joker. I was wrong.

In the film Joker, Joaquin Phoenix brings the character of The Joker to vital, fitful, palpable, fascinating existence. He is now a title character, among brilliant previous supporting characters. He is part popinjay, part vermin. But most of all, he never stops being human. He is the most human of Jokers.

That humanity, as twisted as it may become, burns on the screen.

For the first half of Joker, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is the victim. We sympathize with his being mistreated and abused.

It's like Death Wish (1974) in reverse. The vicious bullies are punks, but this time they're elitist punks - rich "pricks." We actually root for Fleck to get his vengeance against them. Like Hitchcock, director Todd Phillips manipulates his audience in a masterly way.

But as Arthur descends into madness, his activities are no longer heroic. They become severe, angst-ridden, and mean-spirited. The last part of the film boils over, sloshing with violence. It's a wicked trip.

Director/co-writer Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver know their movies. The scenes between Arthur/Joker and television host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) draw heavily on Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1982), which had De Niro and Jerry Lewis. In Joker, Arthur, who works for a clown company, wants to be a standup comedian, although his mother (Frances Conroy) says, "Don't you have to be funny to be a comedian?" Not if you're a lethal comedian.

In Joker, there are three movie titles on marquees. All could be relevant. Ace in the Hole (1951) is a film about how the media and a mob corrupted a rescue attempt. Blowout (1981) focuses on how sound misleads, as does Joker's humorless laugh. And Zorro, the Gay Blade (1981) is not the Zorro that we expect.

The film's last sequence is perhaps reminiscent of Road Runner in a mental institution.

Joker teems with striking images created by cinematographer Lawrence Sher, and dramatic music by HIldur Guonadottir. It's a film of vivid effects, but it's not always graphic. It has possibly two or more murders not on screen. We have to decide - to participate.

The end of Joker plunges us into a world of absurdity and cruelty. It could be taken as a metaphor for the present.

Joker features psychology, and especially the impact of mob psychology.

Joker is now King.

Whatever mob you fear, they're out there.

© 2000-2019 Tony Macklin