Movie review: Joker


JOAQUIN PHOENIX STARS in “Joker” (2019).

Joker — Running Time: 2:02 — Rating: R

If “Joker” had been made by ordinary people, it would have been dismissed as an overdone dive into violence. Instead, a team headed by actor Joaquin Phoenix and director Todd Phillips has created a wicked nightmare on film. The arguments generated by its violence spring from fear of spreading violence in young people. Whatever your theories, the combination of acting, music and filming will glue you to your seat. Just try to look away.

We meet Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) who carries a card explaining that he is infected with a disease of frequent, inappropriate laughter. That being the premise, director/writer Phillips and his team create two hours of a man laughing as he indulges himself in his inherent criminal brutality. The background sound — sometimes musical, sometimes noise — is full-time frightening.

In the film’s biggest weakness, Arthur asks his therapist for more meds. “You’re on seven already,” is her reply. If indeed she is a professional, we have little respect for her wisdom. Whenever Fleck becomes violent, the grim atmosphere is heightened by his expressions and the dark music. Even when this sick guy is taking good care of his bedridden mother, we are scared for her. The junk laden filthy subway is yet another scene of one of his memorable explosions.

Well into the movie and sunk in dark expectation, we watch Arthur walking around the city with frightening expressions and reactions to the smallest triggers. By now, we are scared in the certainty that even worse will come. With a cigarette hanging full-time from his mouth and his head wrapped in smoke, we can feel the audience sinking into fear of what will come next.

As I think about the fear I felt while watching, I realize that Phoenix has managed to create a man riddled with a sickness so deep that we are scared even in the protection of the theater. Every puff of smoke, every grimace, every hideous laugh is wrapped in a score that magnifies everything that is unfolding.

As you leave the theater, you may be soaked in a new determination to avoid subways, elevators and dark city streets. The simple proof of the quality of this filming is that the fear audiences feel is solid proof that Phoenix and Phillips have created a film of hideously infectious suggestion. The why of that is partly due to new filming techniques that are well suited to terror.

Banning books or movies always leads to demands for more censorship. No, thank you. Let this movie be an example of the ability of expert filmmakers who succeed in lifting whole audiences right up into the story they are telling on screen. I will never forget the fear I felt eight decades ago when I watched Spencer Tracy create “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Though it didn’t turn me into a savage, it still pops back into my head now and then. Verdict? They, too, made a good movie.

— Reviewed by Joan Ellis

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