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[Herald Review] Send in the clowns: ‘Joker’ pokes where it hurts for a fiendish joke

This film is f---ing intense.

I apologize for the vulgarity, but there is just no other way to put it. There are films that push you to the limit, have you on the edge, and then there’s “Joker,” starring the brilliance of Joaquin Phoenix.

Unlike films like “Requiem for a Dream” -- for which honestly I don’t even know “intense” is the right word -- director Todd Phillips’ new film doesn’t have a lot of extreme in-your-face moments. That is except for the camera, which literally gets in the face of Phoenix for intense close-ups that make you uncomfortable.

Uncomfortable, that’s the word. This flick is extremely uncomfortable because of not what it shows you, but what it makes you think. Because despite all the absurdity that takes place around the most cartoonish character imaginable, this film makes you ask yourself if the unhinged character has a point, and makes you shudder for even thinking of it.

The film takes place in Gotham, a city unstable in every aspect of the word. Mutual disdain between social classes run deep and streets are saturated with poverty, crime and hatred, just bubbling beneath the surface. 

Joker (Warner Bros. Korea)
Joker (Warner Bros. Korea)

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a comedian who -- like the city he lived in all his life -- falls short in every way, bogged down by his pathological laughter, mental illness that hinders him from connecting with other human beings, ill mother who has fallen out of touch with reality, and stigmatization from his co-workers at clown dispatch service and rest of the world.

Each day the world seems determined to bully him, bombarding him with unfortunate gifts like thugs beating him almost to death, a supposed “friend” stabbing him in the back to get him fired, and constant loneliness and sense of being unfulfilled. Unsure of himself and his purpose in the world, tension keeps building up underneath his fixed smile.

Despite being based on a psychopath who dresses up as a clown and dances in a weird way, the story is surprisingly grounded in reality. This is odd considering its source material.

The film is based on one of the most iconic and famous comic book villains of all-time: Batman’s nemesis Joker. But it is independent from other DC Comic-based movies, including the ongoing franchise unofficially called DC Extended Universe that has pushed out atrocities like “Suicide Squad.”

The cast has some impressive names, even including the legendary Robert De Niro as talk show host Murray Franklin, but I’d rather not talk about them. Not that there wasn’t good acting all around, but because the film is basically a one-man show featuring Phoenix’s excellent, unsettling, and eccentric performance as the title character.

Previous renditions of the “Clown Prince of Crime” varies from an eccentric mob boss to a psychotic terrorist, but Phoenix’ version embodies a story that is surprisingly relatable. Not in a way that justifies actions of a psychopathic killer, of course, but in a way that makes one think about the pulse of society that he points out.

While taking place in a fictional society, the problems in the film are realistic, and so are the side effects. It is very believable that so many people in the film would start idolizing murder by a clown in a mask.

The film has sparked controversy about Fleck’s actions having influence in the form of real-life violence, but don’t we already have those? Those lone-wolf shooters that snap after being “mistreated by the society” are nothing new. This is why the film doesn’t feel anything like the previous cartoon-based films, because it is not. It is one based on real life.

Despite what I’ve said before, I couldn’t get De Niro completely out of the picture as the film reminded me of him in the classic Martin Scorsese film “Taxi Driver.” The two films are apples and oranges, but both had the energy of tension inside a malnourished and discarded outsider building up inside. This tension is palpable throughout the film, which keeps the audience uneasy and on the edge of the seat.

Another brilliant aspect of this film is that although the movie feels very different from other DC films, Phoenix has incorporated the essence of the Joker character. Joker is essentially a clown and his actions -- while brutal and bloody -- can actually be funny from a certain point. Joker character in this film treads a fine line between horror and comedy, and the message is symbolically carried out via a brief showing of a film by Charlie Chaplin, who famously said, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in the long-shot.”

The film depicts the chaotic world view through the eyes of the mentally unstable, and one can never really tell how much of it is real and how much fantasy. But maybe there is no need for clear distinction. Maybe it’s all subjective, just like how Arthur said, what is funny and not, what’s right or wrong are all subjective.

“Joker” does have some flaws in terms of its structure. I wouldn’t say the film made full use of its characters in building various layers of the story, as a lot of its acting talents were wasted as plot devices. It is a brilliant one-man show, but it is after all, a one-man show.

But this is a brilliant film that gets you thinking. Not about the good and evil, but about what actually is good and evil, and if there can be even such a thing.

“Joker” opens in local theaters on Oct.2.

By Yoon Min-sik (