Venice 2019: Todd Phillips' Demented 'Joker' Movie Doesn't Hold Back
by Alex Billington
August 31, 2019
There will be before Joker. And there will be after Joker. Nothing will be the same after, we'll be living in a whole new world. That's not even hyperbole, just the truth. I don't know if the world is ready for this movie. Or maybe it is? We'll find out soon enough. There's no stopping it now. I can't believe it exists. But it does, and it's coming. And no matter if we're ready or not, it's going to make an impact. Director Todd Phillips' new take on the origin of the DC Comics villain known as "The Joker" just premiered at the Venice Film Festival and oh my goodness, it is crazy. It is GNARLY. It is audacious. It doesn't hold back. It's subversive, provocative, dark, demented, twisted, and terrifying. Joker will likely end up being one of the most divisive movies of the decade, with some people hating it with a passion, others heralding it as a bold masterpiece.
It must be said, without a doubt, that this Joker movie will flip the "comic book movie" genre on its head. It is the most impressive, most brutal villain origin story we have ever seen. No comic book movie, even those introducing villains (e.g. Venom), have ever been as dark and brutal as this. This is an origin story, but it's an artistic, psychological, slow burn origin story about how one lonely, forgotten, mentally-ll man is treated like trash by society and becomes the evil genius known as Joker. We have seen plenty of villains in comic book movies, but to go this far, to go this deep, this dark, and to make an R-rated movie that doesn't hold back, is unprecedented. And it's not a perfect movie, but then again, what is? There's an undeniably amount of artistry in this movie - the lead performance, the cinematography, the world building, the psychological brutality. We can argue about whether it's all good or bad, but we can't really argue about the artistry here.
With a screenplay by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver, this audacious re-introduction to the iconic Batman villain is about a mentally unstable man who goes all in on violence. Set in the early 1980s in a gritty, dirty, trash-filled Gotham City (which is very clearly New York City - both as a filming location and as a reference) we follow Arthur Fleck, a man disregarded by society, with a condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably. Joaquin Phoenix takes on this role with all of his usual gusto. Phoenix is an absolute legend. Undoubtedly one of the greatest. But we already know this. And the movie doesn't prove that, it doesn't need to, it just lets Phoenix show off his excellence, taking the Joker role from remarkable (with Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight) to phenomenal levels. He's deranged, fucked up, and Phoenix pulls off that insanity, fully becoming the Joker by the end. It's a slow start, but by the end he wholly embraces that and fans are going to eat it up.
I don't know what everyone is going to make of this movie. Early reactions are all over this place. On one hand, it's too dangerous for modern society to get a look at this. On the other, it's a reflection of the times, and that's part of the genius behind it. It may piss you off, it may scare you, but it's crafted brilliantly in that way. Much like Julius Onah's Luce from Sundance earlier this year, it's provocative and will make you ask questions. It will make you wonder whether some of what he's saying is all true, while the rest of what he's doing is wrong. It will make you wonder if there is any solution to our problems with society, or if this is will be the product of it no matter what. I love when cinema prods and pokes at society in just the right way. It's only a movie, but it's a movie that ignites discussion / conversation / argument / criticism / condemnation.
In addition to Phoenix, the movie itself features an extensive amount of technical excellence that makes it stand out as a work of cinematic art. It's vibrant and saturated, yet still looks gritty and dark. The score by Hildur Guðnadóttir is a dark, waning, moody compliment to the psychological breakdown we're seeing on screen. The collapse of society. There's a delicious soundtrack of songs that Todd Phillips has selected, which also add even more depth to the entertainment. And yes, it is entertainment, it is a movie, as dark and demented as it may be. At times it becomes a horror movie, truly frightening and shocking. It doesn't hold back, it clearly shows us what's going and puts us there to watch it all happen. We must confront this horror ourselves, reckon with it and consider own place in society. In a society that allows this to happen. Joker is created by all of us, too, as much as he is created by himself - and this realization is a sharp slap in the face.
This is why I don't know if the world is ready for this movie. Even if we aren't ready, it's coming anyway and will be talked about for years. Comic book movies are never going to be the same again, as this shows how powerful a villain origin story can truly be. How dark they can go and still capture the attention of the film world. This movie might provoke extremely negative reactions, and extremely positive reactions, and it will unquestionably stir things up. It's volatile, but being as provocative as it is, this confirms it's an iconic work of cinema. Even if it isn't perfectly polished, even if it has flaws. I highly doubt this movie will be forgotten. It might end up as the next Fight Club, posters plastered on the walls of millions of college dorm rooms. It might not. One thing is for sure - it cannot be dismissed as "trash". It's a staggeringly bold, horrifying movie.
Alex's Venice 2019 Rating: 9 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing