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Joker has it in spades

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Outstanding performance by Joaquin Phoenix

Joker (15)
Running time 2hr 2min
Rating: ****

WITH so many different and memorable screen iterations of the character, Batman’s sadistic arch nemesis has already cemented his place as one of cinema’s greatest villains. With excellent performances by Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill and Heath Ledger among others, the role has acquired its own mythic quality and prestige. Joaquin Phoenix, just like the great actors that came before him, interpreted the Joker in his own unique fashion. His performance, under Todd Phillips’ superb direction, is nothing short of masterful.

Joker is an unflinching character study of Arthur Fleck, a mentally unstable comedian who feels shunned and ignored by society. Set in 1980s Gotham, a backdrop of severe social unrest, Arthur struggles to function within everyday life owing to his
debilitating mental health and a neurological disorder that causes him to randomly burst into fits of uncontrollable laughter. The plot follows Arthur as he descends into murderous insanity while Gotham becomes embroiled in social turmoil.

Phoenix’s take on the character is refreshingly human. The film initially shows Arthur in a highly- sympathetic light. We see how unfairly he is treated by those around him. He is mindlessly beaten up by a gang of teenagers and treated as a freak by his fellow citizens and employees. Having seen this and then the small apartment he lives in with his mother, it is hard not to feel sorry for the guy.

It isn’t long however, until Arthur starts to show his darker side. After being confronted and ridiculed by three young businessmen on the subway, he finally cracks. He murders two in self-defence and executes the final one, all while in full clown makeup.

What follows is one of the best scenes in the film. In an empty, disgusting city toilet, Arthur – liberated by his transgressive actions – performs a sort of expressive dance, captured beautifully on camera and accompanied by the rousing scoreof Hildur Guðnadóttir. Scenes such as this make Arthur a sympathetic and humanised character. This is when Joker’s problematic ideologies and messages come into play. Should we pity and root for such a vile and violent figure? The film gives no definite answer to this question, which is definitely one of its strengths.

But Phoenix’s performance is the real treat here. Arthur’s camp and childish nature lends itself so well to the playful nature of the Joker. Phoenix is utterly convincing as one man on the brink of insanity. His body even adds to the whole persona. Significant weight loss allowed him to perform some quite grotesque physical acting. Scenes of Arthur shuddering and flexing topless are some of the film’s most memorable. And the laugh is just unforgettable. His hyena-like cackle is both
over-the-top and unnervingly bone-chilling. The effort Phoenix and Phillips put into the whole creation of this unique and riveting character must be commended. Despite its comic book status, Joker really does look to have a shot at winning some of next year’s Academy Awards. Other actors such as Robert De Niro (who plays Murray Franklin, Arthur’s comedy hero) and Zazie Beets (Arthur’s love interest Sophie) put in good performances, but they only serve to bolster Phoenix’s addictive and engrossing portrayal.

Joker does have its flaws. Sometimes the dialogue is a bit clunky and on the nose. There is barely an attempt to make the film’s themes and messages subtle and at times the plot can be a little far-fetched. But in the end, none of these really hinder the viewing experience. As a massive fan of the character, I was sceptical that Phoenix’s portrayal could compare to the chaotic force of nature that was Ledger or the comedic gangster of Nicholson. However, seeing Arthur Fleck’s
transformation into Joker is one of the most enjoyable film experiences I have ever had. The themes are problematic, its violence is shocking and its script could be tighter, but this doesn’t take away from Joker’s status as probably the most important, controversial and interesting films of this year. It’s not perfect, but it’s not be taken lightly or ignored.
It grabs you by the throat and makes you listen to what it has to say... whether you like it or not.

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