It's been a while.
Movies that cause genuine uproar are few and far between these days. Sure, the 'Ghostbusters' remake grabbed headlines due to the unbridled misogyny that was embedded in some reactions. But a film which supposedly will provoke people to kill? So much so that the US Army felt the need to send an email warning of potential violence?
Sounds like a film I need to see.
With signs outside the cinema proclaiming that tonight's screening is sold out, I took my seat and marvelled at the crowd. All were silent throughout which is pretty impressive, if you ask me.
I'm sure you know the story by now: Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives in Gotham City with his elderly mother and finds himself heading down a path that will see him become the Joker. It's basically a rewrite of Taxi Driver, with references to Death Wish and The King of Comedy in there as well.
However, there is a lot more on show than a mere update of classic films.
Visually, the film is a treat. It manages to be grimy without resorting to the cliched washed out, sepia look that has dominated a lot of so called "gritty " and/or "horror" movies over the last number of years, while the fantasy sequences are lit to overpower the grime and bring an almost sitcom vibe to proceedings. The contrast between the two can often be uplifting and demoralising. And the reference to old Hollywood (the film opens with the classic Warner Communications logo, and the title sequence references old musicals) are an effective post-modern affectation. By harking back to a by-gone era, the film appears to be out of sync with modern culture, which it then uses to devastating effect.
This is through the social commentary of how the actions of one deranged individual can lead to a mass uprising, which then turns into nihilistic, point scoring violence. The most obvious reference is Occupy (due to the use of masks and anti-capitalists views), but there are other references to the LA 92 riots and the anti-Vietnam War protests. It's uncomfortable to see how the genuine anger of Gotham City residents becomes (thanks to misinterpretation and manipulation) unregulated and polarised.
Performance wise, Phoenix has the time of his life in the main role. His deep descent into madness in a broken society is affecting and powerful, but (crucially) without ever being relatable. Right from the off, the audience know that he's not just an average person, but one who exudes menace and restrained violence, even if he is a somewhat pitiful character. You cannot take your eyes off him. And with the film centering around him, his intensity means that you don't notice how the film is entirely dependent on him.
Is it a masterpiece?
No (the focus on the main character means that certain other angles are not explored to satisfaction and a key scene towards the end, presumably meant to invoke David Thewlis' apocalyptic rant in Naked, restates the obvious), but it is a film that reflects the damaged optimism and listless culture of the 2010's. And it does this by taking a character that we all know, removing some of the more obvious elements (Batman does not appear at all) and we get a tour de force that asks questions about society and the corrosive nature of conformity and singular greed.
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.