Monday, 14 October 2019
Attack Of The Clowns
Directed by Todd Phillips
UK cinema release print.
Warning: Minor spoilers about a subway scene here.
Cesar Romero did it better.
Heath Ledger did a pretty good job too but it’s kind of hard to compare the portrayals of the fair few actors who have played The Joker on screen over the years since they’ve mostly been written slightly differently for each incarnation and, certainly in the case of this new variant of the character played by Joaquin Phoenix, he’s a very different beast altogether.
Set in the 1980s, this new stand alone stab at an ‘origin’ film for The Joker is purported to be inspired by Alan Moore’s groundbreaking 80s graphic novella The Killing Joke but... I really don’t see that. In that comic the iconic character had more or less the same origin he had in the majority of the previous comics (and many of the big screen versions of the character) which is something this new iteration does absolutely nothing to parallel. It kinda makes you wonder why they bothered calling it Joker and tying it into DC in a way but, they do at least use the iconic make-up here and there are some other overlaps from the world of Batman in the movie.
I remember when I first heard about this project and I thought that it was kind of a bad idea. Back in the 1970s, DC had tried launching a stand alone comic of The Joker and it got cancelled after nine issues. Ironically and, presumably, to tie in with this new movie which also seems to be trying to distance itself as much as possible from the comic book version of the character, the company has recently released Issue 10 containing the artwork and story originally scheduled for that issue way back in the 1970s (I might review this short run of comics sometime soon on this blog, I think). So, the point I’m trying to make is that I wasn’t expecting a film about a super villain from DC to make much of a splash (even though I’m probably the only person in the world to like the Catwoman spin-off movie with Halle Berry) and I’m not the biggest fan of Phoenix either, although I’ve warmed to him of late due to his participation in You Were Never Really Here (reviewed by me here).
It’s interesting that Phoenix should follow that movie with this one because they both have a lot of echoes of Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver about them... although it’s even more blatant in the former movie. Critics who have cited Scorcese’s Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy as major influences on Joker have been absolutely right to do so. You can see the mentally damaged Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (not to mention some Gotham street scenes which could pass for Bickle’s nightmarish perception of New York in the 1970s) and there’s definitely a strong link to The King Of Comedy here, with Joker obsessed to an extent with a talk show host here which manifests itself in almost exactly the same way as they did in the Scorcese movie (flights of imagination presented as reality etc). Ironically though, it’s Robert De Niro himself, who had the obsession with the comedian played by Jerry Lewis in The King Of Comedy, who is the target of The Joker in this film so... what goes around comes around, I guess.
Joker itself is, I have to admit, a pretty good movie. I was very surprised at the quality of the narrative conviction shown in the performances here... Phoenix is great, as is Zazie Beetz, DeNiro and Frances Conroy as the older version of The Joker’s mother. Conroy also had a role in that Catwoman movie with Halle Berry too so, I’m glad this production was not cursed by her involvement in that one.
The film is also impressive in that it portrays a very small scale story (writ large with bigger implications) and it’s consistently, tonally, a downward spiral. A grinding, wearing depiction of down beats with a character who has no real grasp on reality and who is portrayed, for the most part, as a victim. I’ve already had a disagreement with somebody as to whether The Joker is depicted as evil in this film. I think not... he’s just mentally unhinged which, I suspect, takes away a person’s ability to make a choice between right and wrong and so, I think this is more of a monster... a human monster, for sure but, a monster nonetheless. Indeed, one could say the writer/director is even trying to illicit sympathy and empathy for the character with the way he portrays all of life’s ‘tough breaks’ as a force which finally flicks the switch in the title character’s head. In Bonnie And Clyde, Arthur Penn did this much more subtly using the language of film to win over the audience to the title characters by withholding establishing shots and long shots until the first crime is being committed. Here, Phillips and Phoenix are somewhat less subtle by piling on the despair and pathos of the character.
Indeed, the first set of murders The Joker commits are something the audience are really, I suspect, rooting to happen. He’s just been terrorised and beaten by a gang of rich, yuppie thugs who are the absolute opposite of sympathetic character types... you kind of want them to get their just dessert and when they do it kind of puts you on his side when it happens. Later on, when he slashes someone’s throat before stabbing him in the eye, the damage is already done with the build up and framing of the character that, even though it’s a totally unjustified killing, you kind of shrug it off. In fact, in the audience I was with, in the aftermath of this very scene, when he lets a distraught character go free instead of murdering him because he was always nice to him in the past, I heard one of the ladies in the audience utter the words “Aww, so sweet.”, so, yeah, there’s empathy and identification going on with the title character in this for sure but, you know me, I’m not one to be on the side of censorship. Art is art and people will interpret it how they will, dependent on their psychological make up so, it’s good that this film can blur the lines between villain and ‘everyman’ character in some ways. At least it throws up the issue for discussion.
Another way in which the movie seems to ‘normalise’ the psychopathic killer, to some extent, is to make his laugh a psychological condition which the character even has to highlight to people by carrying a card around with him, explaining he’s not laughing at them it’s just a neurological malfunction. Gone, though, are the character's keen wits that allow him, in the comic, to be a master of crime. This film has much less in common with popular, lionised super villains of past literature and film such as the exploits of Fantomas and Fu Manchu and seems to be a much more willing spiritual cousin of those 1930s hoodlum and gangster pictures that Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson used to make. So not like the keen mind of the comics at all.
That being said, the film does take things from the long, comic book history but the biggest thing I think it takes is probably the ‘Cult Of The Batman’ which was at the forefront of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns... except it’s filched for The Joker instead. This ‘movement’ isn’t even something the character deliberately instigates or has any control over, although there’s a wonderful scene near the end of the film (which I think is where the film should have ended) where The Joker is confronted by his ‘children’, so to speak, and plays to them. It feels a lot like the end scene from Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (reviewed here) and I think it’s quite effective.
Another thing from the comics, of course, is the Wayne family. There’s a nice set up to the idea that The Joker might actually be Batman’s step brother and, although it’s thrown out as the reality of the situation before the end, there’s also evidence within the film that this is just a cover story (take a look at the back of the photo of Arther Fleck aka The Joker and his mother and tell me whose initials they are). Similarly, the familiar old Batman origin story which gets done here, is portrayed as an indirect result of the actions of The Joker so, once again, we have the idea that the creation of The Batman was only possible with existence of The Joker. This yin and yang relationship about the two characters is pretty much the only thing I can really see as being taken directly from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke although, I have to say, it’s probably been thirty years or more since I last read it so, that’s something I need to get into again.
There’s some beautiful cinematography here too. The many online critics of the use of orange and teal to light a scene will not be happy with this because the film is full of it... but it works well and I loved the way the colour pallette sometimes started out as one thing and then suddenly became a little schizophrenic, possibly as a visual metaphor for what is going on in Arthur’s head. For example, a shot bathed in orange where Arthur is sitting at a desk towards the other end of a long shot is suddenly changed when the camera slowly shifts slightly to the right, allowing the kitchen door and window space to come into view at an angle, which is completely lit in teal. Stuff like this make the movie fun to watch when, perhaps, the tone and content seem a little too bleak to be able to get anything positive out of it.
Whatever you make of it though, the film looks good, has some fantastic performances and has a nice score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, which is something I’ll definitely have to pick up on CD at some point soon. There’s also a nice undercurrent of reality versus what’s going on in the mind of Arthur Fleck and the ‘twist reveal’ actually caught me out for once... so that’s good. Admittedly, the film maybe goes on a little longer than it should and the final coda is a bit redundant but the very last shot revealing the probability that something very violent just went down 'off camera' is quite effective and it’s not a terrible ending... I just thought it was better ending up with The Joker playing to his cult following rather than give it almost a ‘crime doesn't pay’ undercurrent at the end. Not that The Joker, unlike his comic book and previous big screen counterparts, is interested in crime at all. Only with killing people, by this point. I do suspect that the ending has been added after either test screenings or studio interference to soften the tone somewhat... the location of the character makes no sense after what we’ve seen in the sequence prior to this (when he has so many admiring people in the crowd ready to help him).
If you have been sitting on the fence about Joker... I would urge you to give this one a go. It’s at the very least a really nice looking film and it’s very well put together. And, even if you don’t like the film, it’s simplistic approach to some very questionable viewpoints on this kind of character and his portrayal on cinema screens is perhaps something you’d like to have an opinion about. I know I really liked this film and though I wouldn’t see it again at the cinema, I would be happy to take another shot at it on Blu Ray next year and see what else I can spot in it. Definitely something I’d recommend you to go and see, if you get the chance to get to the cinema in the next week or two.