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Joaquin Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix stars as the Joker. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Batman’s most infamous nemesis, the Joker, first appeared in the Batman comic book in 1940. Created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson, the psychopathic clown with a sadistic streak has endured for eight decades, being reinvented time and again.  

The Joker was first embodied on the small screen in the 1960s with Cesar Romero’s over-the-top but highly enjoyable take in the camp television series (and subsequent film) Batman. First-billed Jack Nicholson played the criminal with gangster shades in the more serious 1989 Batman film. Heath Ledger received a posthumous Oscar for his twitchy, psychotic anarchist that traded on the character’s insanity and ambiguity in The Dark Knight (2008). Jared Leto took a fairly modern approach with a tattooed and outlandish hoodlum in Suicide Squad (2016).

As for the Joker’s origin, it has been recreated throughout his existence, with no true commitment to who he is and how he came to be. Part of his mystique is this swirling mystery. The Joker is the ultimate unreliable narrator: “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another … if I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” (The Killing Joke, 1988).

Which brings us to Joker, the new film from director Todd Phillips, who has co-written the screenplay with Scott Silver. This is not just a rethinking of the character and his world; this is another world entirely, and a brutally real one.  

The Gotham City of Joker is a bleak vision of 1980 New York City, a crime- and rat-infested hell; it is a world mired in corruption where the haves actively keep down the have-nots. There are strong political statements that touch on gun control, living conditions of the disenfranchised and the treatment of mental health. (It should be noted that there has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the film and its violence.)  

Phillips presents a back-storied Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a clown whose work is limited to sign-tossing in front of stores and entertaining in children’s hospital wards. He suffers from a neurological disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times. The marginalized Fleck cares for his mother (Frances Conroy, harboring family secrets) in a rundown apartment. Fleck’s great goal is to become a stand-up comic and an unsuccessful attempt contributes to his downward spiral.  

Rather than the tale of a larger-than-life villain — the insane master criminal and homicidal clown — Joker is about society’s rejection of those who need the support the most. The film opens with him being beaten by a group of teenage thugs. Later, Fleck learns that the social services he relies on for his seven medications have been cut. It is this continuous “bad day” scenario that plagues him.  

The already delicate Fleck is driven to his choices by external circumstances. His murder of three Wall Street brokers who are abusing him on the subway becomes freeing. His actions make him a hero to a city that takes up the cry of “Kill the Rich.” Mobs of clown-masked protesters turn the metropolis into a literal hell.

If one separates the history of the character, it is easier to embrace Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. It is a monument of introspection, of ticks, of pain. His Fleck is a man on the brink and then beyond. The camera rarely leaves him for the two-hour running time. Phoenix is the film.

If anything, the character is based less on the Joker and hearkens more to Travis Bickle, the anti-hero of Taxi Driver (1976), with shades of Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy (1982). This is no surprise as the common denominator is Robert DeNiro, the creator of Bickle in the former and the down-on-his luck comedian Pupkin in the latter. In Joker, DeNiro comfortably assays a callous late-night host who brings Fleck onto his show, after using a clip of Fleck’s disastrous stand-up. So much of this adds up to Joker as a homage to these films and those performances.

Special note should be made of Lawrence Sher’s cinematography. Its evocative harshness contributes to the uncompromising tension. The final moments resonate long after the film is over, a true portrait of senseless, bloody violence. 

Joker certainly feels the least like a comic adaptation of any film, and, as an addition to that cinematic universe, it is a strange one. However, it is apparent that this was a choice by the creators. They have opted for a realm that is a gritty, recognizable world, where the day-to-day angers cause horrors that enflame chaos and mayhem. Ultimately, if one separates the film from its source, Joker is a dark, unique and current reflection of our own times.

Rated R, Joker is now playing in local theaters.

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John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from ‘The Sisters Brothers’ Photo by Magali Bragard/Annapurna Pictures

By Kyle Barr

Is there something to say about the fact that, even as so many Western genre movies have been released, covering every inch of America’s rugged past, that the genre still survives?

Though it’s one of film’s oldest and most tested settings, the entire concept of the Western has been deconstructed, reconstructed, parodied, satired, mocked and idolized so many times until today where we have different subgenres from the post-Western, the comedy Western and beyond.

So where does “The Sisters Brothers,” a film directed by French filmmaker Jacques Audiard, sit in this framework? The film was marketed as a comedy Western, and while the film is certainly funny at points, it really is so much more.

John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from ‘The Sisters Brothers’ Photo by Magali Bragard/Annapurna Pictures

This is the jazz version of the Western, something recognizable yet off-kilter enough to be fresh in all the right ways. Adapted from a 2011 novel by the Canadian author Patrick deWitt, the story follows the brothers Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) as two hit-men gunslingers employed by the enigmatic figure of The Commodore (Rutger Hauer).

The Sisters brothers are tasked with finding Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a gentleman and a chemist, knowing that, most likely, they will have to kill him. When they finally find him, Warm and the man who was supposed to confine him, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) have a much more interesting offer to give the two murderous brothers.

The opening shot is one so cleanly reminiscent of Westerns but given a subtle twist of shot and lighting. It starts large, a black field with the hint of a purple horizon, but the silence is cut short with sparks and flashes of light as the Sisters brothers engage men fortified in a house. The film is violent without languishing in it, and, instead, Audiard likes to spend more time in finding comedic moments in the exhausting work of traveling across the West, from trying to ride when hung over or from a  random spider bite (one that crawled inside his mouth), or force a man near-comatose for several days while a bear attack nearly kills his horse. 

Westerns have long drawn their themes of the line between right and wrong, good and evil, society and the wilderness. “The Sisters Brothers” doesn’t so much run away from those themes as it does show just how deflated they are. The fact that the film ends not with so much of a bang but with a calm, pastoral scene of home and family goes to say something about the entire idea of the Western genre.

Jake Gyllenhaal in a scene from ‘Sisters Brothers’

All actors involved do a great job with their performances, and both Ahmed and Gyllenhaal are particularly interesting to watch as they develop a respect for the other over the course of the film. Phoenix is terrific in his role, playing the slightly unhinged gunslinger with just the right amount of anger while leaving room for introspection.

“You do realize that our father was stark raving mad and we got his foul blood in our veins?,” Charlie Sisters says. “That was his gift to us. That blood is why we’re good at what we do.”

While it was Reilly’s own production company that financed the film, it’s good to note that the man who is most known for his comedies, often co-starring with Will Farrell, takes a far more interesting and nuanced turn as the older Sisters brother, killing people in the name of defending his brother, who does not believe he needs saving. He comes into his own especially at the end of the film, as he tries to make up for the past by protecting his brother as they run across the West pursued by men who would kill them.

“The Sisters Brothers” is one of those films that you’ll either love or fully question what all the fuss is about. As a general fan of Westerns and all its spin-offs, this reviewer says it’s a much-needed spin on many overdone film tropes of the Western genre.

Rated R for violence, disturbing images and language, “The Sisters Brothers” is now playing in local theaters.