Few films last year made quite the waves that Todd Phillips’ Joker did. Considered contentious from the offset for giving the iconic DC Comics villain a backstory, the film hit festivals to rave reviews, even winning the coveted Golden Lion at Venice. And then...the internet happened. Fears of white intel violence (nonsensical when you actually see the film), media-driven moral panic and reviews dropping from their initial high. Crazily, it seemed the film world had wound themselves up to fever pitch and then when the film came out nothing! Nothing but becoming the highest grossing R-Rated film ever and going on to earn countless awards (including 11 nominations at this years oscars, a record for any comic book movie). Crazy indeed...
In 1981, lonely clown-for-hire Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives with his mother Penny (American Horror Story’s Frances Conroy) and tries to make sense of a wild world he feels has abandoned him but as his mental illness begins to spiral and society continues to relentlessly push, lies and abuse give way to a rising darkness that threatens to take him and Gotham over entirely.
Indebted to Scorsese, most notably The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, Joker is a transfixing piece of film, destined to achieve a future status in line with work like Fincher’s Fight Club. Fiercely divisive and bold in its use of the source material, Phillips and Scott Silver ventures where few others dare. Sometimes using a scalpel and other times using an axe to tell their story of how a mistreated and ill person comes to find acceptance only in anarchy and violence. The film’s depictions of society are unflinching and as honest as anything ever put onscreen, and its damning statements on the treatment of mental illness and high society show how people often facilitate darkness in taking over. Uncomfortably cathartic and unmistakably horrific, Joker’s treatment in the media has only proved the film’s points and this truly is a film for these shattered times.
Joaquin Phoenix is Oscar assured for his transformative performance, one that constantly makes us question everything we see and which culminates with a finale that is simply perfect. Phoenix is staggering on every level. Meanwhile a string of strong support from Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Brett Cullen and Leigh Gill offers us a rounded character study, filled with references to comic lore and direction from Phillips that pushes the story forward to truly dark places (this guy made Hangover Part III?).
The special features are really the only drawback of this anticipated film’s home video release, as they consist of just four featurettes, one of which is just a photo reel pretty much and two of which are equally short (all below four minutes). The meat comes in making of ‘Joker: Vision and Fury’, which intrigues with behind the scenes insight but not more than that. The lack of director’s commentary (apparently available on some i-Tunes releases) may rankle and no deleted or extended scenes seems like a missed opportunity, though the final product speaks for itself and likely Warner Brothers wanted to avoid any further controversy. This all said, the film’s mesmerising visual presentation and audio quality compensates for light supplements. The crystal clear spine-shaking surround sound shows off the film’s Golden Globe winning (and Oscar and BAFTA tipped) score from Hildur Guðnadóttir, which often chills you and crawls over you just as well as the movie itself. Meanwhile the visuals are perfectly crisp, making every pained expression of the film and Phoenix’s Arthur all the more involving, just as it opens up Lawrence Sher’s cinematography - immaculate in its depiction of a savage and desperate Gotham - even further.
Joker is the film of 2019 and this release is assuredly a must for fans of the character but also admirers of bold and confrontational cinema, that has broken out into the mainstream. If you are wondering what all the hype and discussion is about, silence social media and find out for yourself. A masterpiece.
JOKER / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: TODD PHILLIPS / SCREENPLAY: TODD PHILLIPS, SCOTT SILVER / STARRING: JOAQUIN PHOENIX, ROBERT DE NIRO, ZAZIE BEETZ, FRANCES CONROY / RELEASE DATE: 10TH FEBRUARY