Joker

No my friends, I did not fall off the face of the Earth, although there have been some days when I wish I had. In the month since I last posted, my world has been one of great ups and horrible downs, and I’m not going to go into that in detail. Just suffice to say that my perspective on this film might be influenced at times by my own emotional jumping jacks, so this will be a first pass at a written review. I will probably come back and re-evaluate the movie when my head is clearer and it is awards time. I am pretty certain this film will be up for a number of end of year accolades. the question is, should it be?

The first teaser trailer for this movie doesn’t really tell any of the story or give you much context, all it really does is tell you that this movie will be different, and brother is it. This is a grueling examination of a man’s mental collapse and the consequences to the rest of us when such obvious problems go unaddressed. It is also easy to sympathize with the main character up to a point. He is down trodden but still game, he lives a fantasy with his mother that all is well, and some moments he appears to be warm and tender. That however is the point of the movie, appearances are deceiving but pain will not be fooled, it will win out in the end and woe to those in the way when it happens.  I have seen some political chatter on this film, suggesting it is an apology for one group of fanatics while at the same time inciting another group of fanatics. I don’t see either of those as credible evaluations of what the film presents. Only in the tortured machinations of some deconstructivist social thinker can those points make much sense.  The social failures in Arthur Fleck’s life are too numerous and diverse to lay blame on a political foundation. By the time the story is finished, you will be horrified by what happens, not inspired to act out, or, you will be frustrated by storytelling that takes advantage of the Batman/Joker trope that the Joker always lies.

The performance of Joaquin Phoenix in the lead will be one of the safest points to make comment on. His acting is effectively tortured and creepy in the right spots, but he also manages to beguile us on occasion as a misunderstood outsider who has simply run into a number of difficulties that have warped him. Physically, as other actors before him have done, he transforms his body into an emaciated skeleton with angles and crevices that are disturbing to think about. His vocal performance is calm, despite the condition he has that results in uncontrollable laughter at inappropriate times. His interviews with the social worker are all controlled rage while seemingly subdued on the outside, Once his full transformation is achieved, the part is much more standard. Of course standard Joker would mean over the top behavior and Phoenix manages that as well.

Assuming one half of the story we are given is true, and that is a big assumption, it seems improbable at best. Maybe Gotham City is a powder-keg waiting for a spark to ignite it, but we never see any of that. The resentment of the rich is a media transference from the status of the first people who feel  the evolution of Arthur. The earlier beat down he suffered had little to do with economic necessity or social inequity, rather it is just a typical moment of horror that we have seen on the news regularly for years. A random pedestrian cold cocks a man on the side of the head, and that man dies. On lookers participate. These days the participation might be recording the incident instead of intervening. It is still reprehensible. When Arthur is attacked the second time, we can root for him like Paul Kersey, it is an act of self defense. However, we see Arthur lose control, he is no vigilante at that point, he is a monster. The creation of a rich versus poor dichotomy in this vision of Gotham is the invention of media types, willing to exploit an opportunity.

The movie is brave in a way most commercial films are not. Todd Phillips and Scott Silver are not afraid to let us see the emptiness that Arthur faces on a regular basis. The world is concentrated gloom delivered in a visual style that is dark when it comes to the colors but lively when there are dramatic moments to play out. Phoenix dominates the scene most of the time but the peripheral characters are important as well. To me the most troubling aspect from the view of someone who might be a comic book aficionado is the portrayal of Thomas Wayne ans an indifferent corporate overlord. We get a completely unnecessary retelling of the events that propel young Bruce to his future, and I get the feeling it was only included to remind us of the universe this story is supposed to take place in. This is actually a second DC Comic based movie for actor Brett Cullen who plays Thomas Wayne. He was also the Congressman who gets taken for a ride by Catwoman in “The Dark Knight Rises”.  The political aspects of the film are minor details to the main story which is the de-evolution of the protagonist.

I like most horror films, so I have a high tolerance for bad things happening to people. I don’t care for torture material however and the length of this movie and the absence of any other perspective does make it seem a bit torturous to watch. If you find any humor in this experience, at best it will be of the morbid variety, and there will not be laughter but head shaking. Really, I feel as if I’ve seen a movie that is important, but I have a hard time explaining why. I think the film is compelling but it is repugnant at the same time. I wanted to praise it more than I can but I also want to damn it more than needed. Forget all the political/social justice baloney that people will try to cram down your throat, this is a film that can provoke a good discussion without mentioning ant party, issue, figure or cause. Maybe that is the best justification I can give you for seeing this, you want to know what you are talking about.

You Were Never Really Here

This is a thriller in the broadest sense of the word. It has many of the tropes of an urban thriller; a lone hero, a deep conspiracy of the powerful, an innocent who needs to be saved, and a variety of criminal elements. If you were to group this in with an action film or another Liam Neeson film, you would be so off the mark as to be at risk of hitting your own innocent bystander. One of the reviews quoted in the trailer refers to “Taxi Driver” as its’ counter-part. That is about as close as it gets to any other movie you may have see. The Scorsese film from the seventies has some of the same points, and another isolated hero. Unlike Travis Bickel, “Joe”  lives in a more average surrounding, but his psychosis is probably deeper, darker and more paranoid than anything you have encountered before.

Director/Screenwriter Lynne Ramsay, has visualized the story as a series of images and nightmares. The narrative is mixed with the nightmares and the result is something disturbingly hypnotic. In some moments, Joe is a fierce enforcer of the task he has been set. His grim facade and deliberate pace make him feel very much like a robot set on a program that cannot be moved from it’s goal. Just when he seems to be a mechanical drone of a killing machine, he shows flashes of humanity, vulnerability and confusion. He seems to care for his mother but she frustrates him. There are frequent flashbacks to their early life, and the violent nature he possesses seem to have been both bred into him and taught to him. His dark visions of childhood conjure up a dream of death that he sometimes acts out. This is not auto erotic asphyxiation,  Joe is both suicidal and indestructible. He is testing the limits of both feelings on a regular basis.

It also appears that this PTSD is not limited to experiences from his childhood. Joe seems to have served in one of the Middle Eastern Theaters and seen some things that have left scars. Ramsay does not dwell on these events, they come up as brief flashes and we never see a full picture of what has befallen the man he was. Whatever it was it seems it was pretty ugly. An easy chair psychologist might look at the victims he encountered overseas and put that together with his current crusade, but such psychoanalysis seems simplistic for the complicated figure that Joe is. Joaquin Phoenix seems the perfect choice for this role. His reserved style of speech and his quiet face represent the coiled danger that Joe carries around with him. He seems to still have a tender heart at times as he responds to his Mother’s voice singing an old song from their past and he needs to join in. His willingness to sit with her for a few moments as she goes to sleep also seems like a dutiful son, but his dark side does crop up with visions where their life together disappears in a moment of violence.

A Prop from the Film down at the Arclight Hollywood

Joe has contacts but not really friends. He is so paranoid that when there is a chance encounter with some one who knows him from his violent life, sees him in his home life, a partnership will come to an end. As it turns out, his paranoia is somewhat justified. His job leads him across the path of dangerous people. The plot is never clearly explained. This is one of the nice things that makes this movie unique. Not everything is spelled out for you but if you have imagination, you can figure out as much as Joe. Again, his dark visions tell us as much as the narrative does, and they usually substitute for too much detail. Another visual touch that director Ramsay adds is to let us see most of his rampage in one location, only through security camera footage without sound effects. There is still score but the silent acts of violence seem unreal, as brutal as they are, and morally as justified as they are.

 

 

When it is clear that a twist in the story has taken place, we go in several directions at once. In a seventies thriller, the plot would all be about how the twist must be dealt with and the enemy punished. That is the way this film seems to be heading, but there are more curves ahead and each one brings this film to a new point of view that continuously challenges you. Joe may be driven nearly insane with revenge, but sometimes his empathy manages to get the best of him. If you have disdain for the seventies song “I’ve Never Been to Me”, by Charlene, prepare to reassess. In one of the boldest moments of the film, this song plays out through a moment of horror and tenderness. It is an honest gesture that feels so odd but also so right.

Speaking of music, this has a muscular synth score by Jonny Greewood who was recently an Oscar nominee for “Phantom Thread”. Mixed with contemporary songs and also old classics, the music creates moods and images that match the energy or actions of the scenes in an eerie manner. It is almost good enough to make me go and listen to Radiohead, a band that he is a member of. Along with the sound design of the film, the music adds to the hypnotic atmosphere. This film is a slow burn but it is anything but tedious.

As Joe envisions what he might do, there are some amazing visual moments. The asphyxiation issue is combined with a counting mantra that both Joe and the young girl he is trying to help use. That they go in opposite directions and mix and then change is another great choice by the director. Late in the film there are some incongruous visual moments with Joe and Nina. The harrowing effects of PTSD are not going to end for either of them and we know it by getting a chance to see the darkness repeatedly. The resolution of the film is inevitable and sad and satisfying. It is somewhat ambiguous but that seems all the more appropriate since It would be hard to say how much of what we witnessed was real and how much was nightmare.