With Netflix, Amazon and HBO out in force at the Venice Film Festival 2019, we head over to the Lido to catch up with their latest offerings and review some of the other films making their debuts.
“People don’t consider what it’s like to be the other guy anymore.” That’s Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) mid-rant in Joker, as he decries the state of the world today, a state that has left the rich dismissing the poor, the poor resenting the rich and people in need of medication and therapy with nowhere to turn for aid, due to state funding cuts. The year? Not 2019, but the 1970s, and Gotham City is on the brink of descent into madness: a febrile, feverish madness that means murders on the street are considered commonplace and riots on public transport the new norm.
Leading the descent is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a hasbeen clown and would-be comedian, who has been told by his mother over and over to smile and put on a happy face – even though it’s quite clear there’s nothing to be happy about. We already know from the title of the film that he will eventually become the titular villain of DC comic book lore, but the intrigue in this standalone film lies in the way it shirks canon almost entirely to tell a brand new origin story, one that’s shocking despite, or perhaps because of, its protagonist’s predetermined fate.
The words “origin story” are enough to make many do a runner, but the influences upon Joker aren’t graphic novels or previous blockbuster franchises but Martin Scorsese’s dark duo of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. The latter, in particular, is recalled by the knowing casting of Robert De Niro as Murray Walker, a talk show host whose approval Arthur dreams of. The fact that we see some of these dreams is a key to the unnerving nature of Joker, which plays with giving us a glimpse of his perspective on the world.
Todd “The Hangover” Phillips is a revelation at the helm and does the best directing job of his career with the twisted material, able to strike a tone that straddles stabs of bleak darkness, gasps of hope and pangs of inevitability. He sweeps the two-hour story along with a queasily compelling momentum, sinking down one level at a time until we’re plumbing horrific depths.
Because this is, let’s be clear, a horror story, not the celebratory tale of an antihero; Arthur’s warped worldview may set the mood, but Phillips still manages to juxtapose the way Arthur perceives situations and people with the stark reality everyone else is experiencing. The script, co-written with Scott Silver, is brought to vivid life by Lawrence Sher’s cinematography, which is like watching The Hangover trilogy frozen in the dark hour just before the morning after, the city careening from sickly yellows and clinical blue-whites to inky shadows and spotlights of fame, the camera picking out splashes of red and the bright colours of the Joker’s familiar, garish outfit.
It is undeniably exciting to see a new interpretation of familiar lore, particularly one that charts and tackles the topical twists and turns of off-screen culture and society: in Phillips’ Gotham City, unlike Tim Burton’s Gothic vision or Nolan’s vertiginous sea of skyscrapers, the main train tracks are a straight line direct from the slums to the wealthy finance hub; the collision of these two extremes is unavoidable.
Everything from Taxi Driver to The Third Man can be seen in the noire-tinged urban chases and confrontations. All the while, the music by Hildur Guðnadóttir mixes the dread of Chernobyl with the drive of Sicario 2, accompanying events with a scratching orchestral cycle that relentlessly digs down, down and deeper down. A recurring minor third jump that almost echoes Batman’s theme in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy – but this perverse, sweeping opera is far from heroic.
All of this impressive, stylish construction wouldn’t work without Joaquin Phoenix, who inhabits his role with a commitment that’s magnetic in its unpredictability. Losing a gut-churning amount of weight to play this shell of a person, he’s an immediately tragic figure, his eyes peeking out with resentment, anger and fear from under his white face paint. He humanises a character who might otherwise be two-dimensional, finding rejection, loneliness and a narcissistic sense of entitlement amid a bundle of neuroses and more troubling mental health issues.
But, and here’s why Joker works, its understanding doesn’t cross the line into sympathy, as we’re left watching a man who becomes less and less human as his tragedy unfolds. We can see some of the threads that knit together to contribute towards this monstrous figure – his behaviour is partly the product of an unjust, divided society that doesn’t care, yet he regardless remains a psychopath, among other things, from the offset. But even if the camera threatens to tilt and sway with Phoenix’s athletic presence, and things risk devolving into chaos, we’re not asked to cheer Arthur on or root for him. We repeatedly see him burst into laughter, but can never rule out whether he’s actually crying; that and some late-on editing choices mean that Joker stops just short of fully adopting his perspective. His climax, as he might see it, is one of terror, not triumph. (Tellingly, the film doesn’t play any of its violence for laughs, but keeps its face straight.)
And yet, like Fight Club or V for Vendetta before it, the movie’s sharp topicality makes it hard not to wonder whether the very section of society addressed by Phillips’ surprisingly timely tale will ironically see in this movie an outsider to revere as well as attempt to understand. Beneath this gripping, bold, revisionist psychological thriler, which belongs more in the Joaquin Phoenix Universe than the DC Universe, Joker is the comic book villain we deserve right now.
Joker will be released in UK cinemas on 4th October 2019.
Billie Piper makes her directorial debut with this enjoyably prickly affair – a romantic comedy that is determined to do something new and unique. And, in many ways, Rare Beasts does, as it introduces us to Mandy (Piper), a single mum who we meet in the middle of an excruciating date with her colleague, Pete (Leo Bill). He displays hints of sexism and barely suppressed rage, and that’s only within 5 minutes of their dinner starting – all red flags that would, in any sane world, have Mandy running for the door.
But this isn’t a sane world, and in a sea of people putting on fronts and trying to improve themselves in accordance with the latest fad, Pete stands out because he’s resolutely himself; there’s an authentic quality to his personal, intense, bitter asides and rants that Mandy is drawn to. And so the pair find themselves going down the relationship route, even though they’re a terrible fit for each other.
If that sounds like a miserable watch, Piper’s achievement is keeping things funny and often light – less a kitchen sink lament and more a celebration of two people finding a connection, even if it’s an uneasy one. It wouldn’t work without the cast’s convincing performances, and both Piper and Bill are brilliantly convincing as two extremely flawed individuals, with Kerry Fox and David Thewlis both excellent as Mandy’s parents. The script packs in a little too much for its slight runtime, from a troubled, distant child and a workplace satire to serious family drama and a dose of occasional confessional voiceovers, but the performances are wonderfully real, and that vivid, rounded honest is a rarity in itself – and a testament to the talents of both the ensemble and Piper as a director.
Rare Beasts does not yet have a UK release date.