Entering a packed midday TIFF screening of Todd Phillips’ Joker, a disquieting conglomerate of emotions can be felt. Perhaps some were previously assaulted visually and sonically by the Safdie brothers — Uncut Gems is a “great cup of coffee,” to quote Josh Safdie himself — just hours before and nearly missed the hottest festival ticket altogether. The lineup extends half a city block. Many have to run up five flights of stairs and finally squish in between two strangers, drenched in sweat, gasping for air and goddamn ready to watch Joker!
Silly bursts of paranoia ran through us when we hear movement in the dark hollows of the Princess of Wales theatre, excitement and dread pulsate through aching bones and one recalls the absolute shit show that ensued when Joker took home the ultra prestigious Golden Lion in Venice. The point is this: Joker seems to already have a life outside the realm of cinema, and it hasn’t even been released to general audiences. You can gawk at the pretentiousness of film writers who’ve seemingly made up their minds before watching Phillips’ neo-80s, depraved origin story, but believe this, you will squirm and feel the event-like tension in whatever room you see Joker.
The feelings of paranoia and unease follow Joker from social media canals to the moment the lights dim and you have no where else to turn but forward and drink in every last cataclysmic frame.
It feels big, like it almost shouldn’t exist, but it does. Featuring Joaquin Phoenix in peak, primal form. Joker is a character that brings the primal talent out of whomever best-of-a-generation actor portrays him. One recalls the immense presence of Heath Ledger in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight; he overshadowed a battered, ethically unsure Batman, in a chaotic maelstrom of ability and intensity. Ledger was unforgettable, he was the center of the movie, a towering representation of the themes Nolan wanted to convey. However, Ledger’s Joker was grounded in Nolan’s universe. He was Bruce Wayne’s opposite, the antithesis of good, the chaos brimming under a society on the brink. We never stopped rooting for Wayne; it was just so damn fascinating to see him break the rules to catch a lawless psychopath under any means. It was Batman’s movie.
Joker is Joker’s movie. It’ll either fill you with wonder or make you squeamish, curious or skeptical. Behind the mask is Arthur Fleck, an extremely ill man who navigates a gruelling life in 80s Gotham — which is a living, breathing alternate New York at its most hellish Scorsese — taking care of his elder mother while making ends meet as a party clown. Fleck’s day-to-day turns aggressively dire, the city brutalizes him mentally and physically, until, well, you get the picture. To be clear: Phoenix elevates Joker from good to something in the realm of exquisite, perhaps classic. He obliterates the screen; his laughs prickle the nerves so well that you end up feeling everything. Some are calling this movie dangerous, that it mirrors the worst of modern society, mainly gun crime and the hate-fuelled macabre caused by disturbed individuals. This is a valid conversation worth having, after all, the feelings of paranoia and unease follow Joker from social media canals to the moment the lights dim and you have no where else to turn but forward and drink in every last cataclysmic frame.
The odd moments of humor ring pitch black, so dark that you may find yourself choosing a timid snicker over a guttural laugh. What kind of person laughs at the destruction of a man beaten down so hard that he transforms into the problem, fuses flesh and bone in Phillips’ hellscape? Several did. And moments later a horrific reality check would occur, and gasps filled the darkness.
Joker’s tone is akin to Arthur’s condition, he cackles uncontrollably even in the face of tragedy, his eyes well up and tears rain down while his face contorts to a maniacal smile. It’s a reflective guide to the gauntlet of emotion felt while experiencing Phillips’ sturdy direction. Martin Scorsese’s influence is evident, even Robert De Niro appears in a small, yet critical role as a veteran talk show host. Reverberations of Taxi Driver swell up during the shock-and-awe final act. In a way similar to Marty, Phillips’ goes for the throat and never lets go.
This is filmmaking that devastates.