With Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker Hailed As A Problematic Masterpiece, Here Are Our (Spoiler-Free) Thoughts

29 September 2019
Culture, Movie, Joker, Joaquin Phoenix, DC Comics
Image: Universal

The film not only stunned audiences at Venice, but also went on to take home the Golden Lion Award at the Film Festival, leading many to believe that this Awards season will be dominated by Joaquin Phoenix's performance

Joaquin Phoenix, noted for his expert portrayal of deeply broken figures, has proven that he has what it takes to play the iconic Joker, following the late Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson and Jared Leto.

After months of leaked set photos, reports of extras having to relieve themselves on set, and Twitter teases, we finally received our first trailer of Phoenix’s portrayal in July of this year:

Our first glimpse of the film, which was pinned as an “exploration of a man disregarded by society [that] is not only a gritty character study, but also a broader cautionary tale,” follows Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) as the world grinds him ever further down towards complete mental collapse.

We also get brief glimpses of Shea Whigham’s stern-faced police officer, Zazie Beetz as Sophie, Arthur’s love interest, and a great deal of clown make-up.

As for the movie's story, it's worth noting that one of its stars, Zazie Beetz, told MTV News earlier this year that the movie's script was constantly being rewritten on set day-of:

“The script was great. We rewrote the whole thing while we were shooting it,” Beetz said. “Literally, we would go into Todd’s trailer and write the scene for the night and then do it. During hair and makeup we’d memorise those lines and then do them and then we’d reshoot that three weeks later.”

"I used to think my life was a tragedy," Phoenix's Joker says in the trailer. "But now I realise: It's a comedy."

The Joker was the very first villain in the very first Batman comic, printed back in 1940, and to this date has always been the biggest thorn in the side of the Caped Crusader.

However, despite the fact that The Joker has a ton of different backstories throughout the 70 years of comics that have been written including him, the character has never received a definitive origin story in film other than the one briefly painted in The Dark Knight.

In an interview with Empire, Phillips explained that this film is unique in its story. Unlike other comic book adaptations, this film doesn’t concern itself with details cemented in print. As Phillips says, “We didn’t follow anything from the comic-books, which people are gonna be mad about. We just wrote our own version of where a guy like Joker might come from. That’s what was interesting to me. We’re not even doing Joker, but the story of becoming Joker. It’s about this man.”

Arthur Fleck is portrayed as vulnerable, damaged, and leaning towards psychopathic tendencies that make him seamlessly transition into the criminal who strikes out at Gotham City.

As Phillips said in the interview, casting for the lead role was simple as he said it would always have to be Phoenix. “I think he’s the greatest actor. We had a photo of him above our computer while we were writing. We constantly thought, ‘God, imagine if Joaquin actually does this.’”

And thus, Phoenix has delivered. Joker premiered over the weekend at the. Venice Film Festival, upon, which it received an 8-minute standing ovation. Particular cheers, according to Variety, were reserved for Phoenix's name when it appeared in the end credits. Critics hailed the film as one of the best of the year so far, some even giving it perfect scores.

Gamespot, in a 10/10 review, called it "wonderfully fresh, dangerously exciting, undeniably entertaining, and rock-solid in its artistry. It might make you uncomfortable, and it will no doubt stay with you long after the curtains close; great movies often do."

The Guardian were also unflinching in their praise, awarding it five stars and saying "What a gloriously daring and explosive film Joker is. It’s a tale that’s almost as twisted as the man at its centre, bulging with ideas and pitching towards anarchy."

If the positive reviews weren't enough to cement the fact that Joker is a must-see flick, the film was also awarded the Golden Lion Award at the Venice International Film Festival. For the uninitiated, this is a pretty big deal, especially when you take into consideration the fact that last year's award recipient was Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, which would go on to get ten nominations at the 91st Academy Awards.

Having seen the film now, it's quite easy to look back at such an initial outpouring of praise as being that given by people who were largely caught up in the moment. And it shows, as reactions to the film have cooled somewhat in the time since its premiere as. it's slowly rolled out across the world. Still yet to hit theatres otherwise, critics have called into question its themes, some of whom have accused the film of glorifying a plight experienced by white, socially-challenged men that in some cases has manifested itself in real-life mass murder.

"The film shoots itself in the foot twice: firstly, through its awkwardly populist subtext which evokes the imagery of Anonymous and, by extension, far-right protests – the uprising we are asked to side with in Joker is unambiguously white and male," wrote British GQ's Jack King in an otherwise positive review, and it's hard not to agree. There's no doubt that Joker is a very, very good film. It's brutally unsettling and, by keeping its violence largely to very brief flashes of completely unbridled anger, genuinely shocking.

It's easy to see what Phillips was going for in his direction of the film. His depiction of a squalid 1970's Gotham City feels genuinely claustrophobic, but the most unsettling theme running through the theme is that of what humans, both on the Joker's personal level and as a greater, downtrodden society, can do when pushed too far. I don't think it intends to act as a piece heroising extreme actions of incel violence or white nationalism as has been suggested by a number of outlets — Joaquin Phoenix was so put out at the suggestion of it that  he walked out of an interview. But walking out, it made sense that for the first time going to a media screening of a film, we were magnetically wanded in case we were carrying weapons.

A good bulk of the praise has been directed at Phoenix's performance as the titular hero-turned-villain. Variety called him "astonishing," as did Empire, who continued by saying "his usual intensity is on full display and it’s captivating, even overwhelming in moments. IGN elaborated on this further, saying "Arthur’s uncontrollable laughter looks as though it physically pains him; his body is rail-thin and battered, his misery is etched on his deeply creased face. Phoenix captures all these tiny nuances in Arthur and his interactions with others that reveal so much about this disturbed individual’s inner life."

JOKER is at cinemas on October 4.

Via GQ Australia