Autumn’s customary rush of would-be Oscar contenders kicks off with a pair of dark character studies centred on remarkable, transformative performances. Both are character pieces centring on childhood trauma and its reverberation in the lives of emotionally dysfunctional adults. They’re both at their best during near-ambient stretches which emphasise their title characters simply being, letting physicality and facial expression reveal character. That’s probably more common ground than you’d expect between an origin story for a Batman villain and a study of the latter days of Judy Garland.
The former is of course Joker. Directed by Todd Phillips (of the Hangover trilogy), who co-writes with Scott Silver, the film reimagines the titular villain as party clown and aspiring stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). Living in an early 1980s version of Gotham City where the divide between rich and poor has grown wide and the streets are squalid, Arthur suffers from mental illness, for which he is heavily medicated, and which makes him prone to fits of involuntary laughter. Arthur’s only regular human contact is with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), with whom he shares a squalid apartment. Over the course of several days, a series of personal tragedies and Gothic revelations about his past drive Arthur over the edge – transforming him into a vengeful force and the unlikely leader of a violent populist uprising.
Joker’s central gimmick is its adoption of the aesthetic and structure of a late 70s/early 80s anti-hero character study – particularly Martin Scorsese’s classics Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy (it even casts Robert De Niro as a talk show host who Arthur idolises, a clear riff on the latter’s Jerry Lewis character). The film commits to the grit of this milieu with admirable thoroughness. Phillips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher create an urban environment so cold, oppressive, and grimy you’ll want to wash it off your skin afterwards. By day, grey and brown buildings loom depressingly large under a sky so pale it looks bled dry. By night, the streets are swallowed up by large shadows, illuminated only by the grungy glow of orange streetlights and sickly green neon signs. The city itself looks ill, an evocation of nocturnal urban paranoia that feels like Serpico by way of Notes from Underground. Icelandic composer Hildur Guonadottir’s anxious, wiry cello-lead soundtrack howls and wails with dread and sometimes curious beauty. When the violence comes, it’s quick and uncompromisingly nasty. Far from glorifying Arthur’s crimes, the film presents them unflinchingly and refuses to tell us how to feel about him. The film is less concerned with whether or not we like Arthur and more with whether we find him interesting (the film’s most authentically Scorsese-esque aspect).
It’s success in achieving this is thanks in no small part to Phoenix, who is as adept here as he was in The Master and You Were Never Really Here at inhabiting a damaged character designed to inspire conflicted feelings. His frame skeletal and his bodily grotesquely hunched, he cuts a striking figure. When his gaunt visage twists into fits of involuntary laughter, his mouth gaping wide while his eyes project pain, he looks like Munch’s The Scream. Phoenix plays Arthur as a man stunted in childhood, still with a child’s bottomless hunger for affirmation. Listen to the way his voice turns up, almost inquisitive, on the end of his sentences, as if asking for approval; it’s heartbreaking, yet faintly chilling coming from a grown man. When we see his milk-pale features in close-up illuminated by the soft orange light of he and his mother’s apartment as he stares at the TV, he looks as pitiably innocent as a melodrama heroine; yet when a few moments later, after a genuinely chilling hallucination sequences, this image is reprised with his face under the TV’s harsh blue light, his expression of fixation is now tinged with menace. His physicality is astonishing, conveying the emergence of the Joker through grotesque but hypnotic contortions and almost balletic gestures (quite literally, in one stunning sequence) that pull his bony torso and long limbs into painterly shapes.
It’s a pity, then, that Joker as a whole isn’t quite so all-in as its central performance. The film seems to have little idea how to end once Arthur has become his alter-ego, stumbling through a confused and unnecessary sop to comic-book mythology and a dud of a final scene. Given the classics from which it takes inspiration, it’s something of a shame that Phillips’ film couldn’t quite wholeheartedly commit to a cohesive thematic vision the way that those films do. But it’s heady, nihilistic kick remains potent – and Phoenix’s performance utterly indelible.
Judy is less overtly disturbing than Joker, but still has a haunting darkness that stays with you. Helmed by experienced theatre director Robert Goold and written by Tom Edge, the film casts Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland in 1969, the last year of her life. She is without a permanent residence and plagued by health problems brought on by the medications she was forced onto in her youth and her subsequent addictions, and has been reduced to performing for meagre fees. Desperate to retain custody of her two children by ex-husband Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell), Garland accepts an offer to perform a series of concerts in London, where her popularity has endured more than in the states. The film follows her over the course of this challenging residency, exploring her fraught relationship with fame and her own star image, interspersed with flashbacks detailing her harrowing induction into Hollywood.
Judy is an unrelentingly melancholy and unapologetically mournful piece that refuses to mitigate or apologise for the tragedy inherent in its story. The film explores unflinchingly the manner in which the industry psychologically and physically destroyed Garland and so many others like her. Yes, there are aspects of biopic formula present here, but the film is set apart by its haunting sense of tragedy – and by Zellweger’s remarkable performance. The picture painted of Garland here is of someone so consistently exploited and denied affection that she has developed something like an addiction to the applause of the crowd. The most expressively directed sequence in the film illustrates this beautifully; as Garland closes her set with ‘The Trolley Song’, the camera slowly zooms toward her face until nothing else is visible and we’re left with just her, looking happy for the first time in the film, and the music. Once the song ends, the crowd become visible again as they burst into applause, then we linger on Zellweger’s face almost tearful in gratitude – before cutting to her slumped over, exhausted, in her dressing room. It’s the high and the comedown, the story of a whole life writ large: the ecstasy of the audience’s adulation and the horrible toll exerted by dependence on it. Judy does not sanitise Garland’s life nor sand off her rough edges – it assumes that its audience are sophisticated enough to still sympathise with its subject even if she is not made a saint. Many of the film’s most poignant interludes are those focussed on the blossoming relationship between Garland and nightclub owner Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock). Even for those who don’t know the outcome, her utter dependence on him for validation and his childlike blitheness give their scenes together such a sense of impending doom that they become almost impossible to watch.
There are moments of bittersweet optimism here, too, largely in the moments when someone is unexpectedly and selflessly kind to Judy, or when we are reminded of the many lives she touched. An extended sequence wherein she spends the night with two gay fans is one of the film’s best, grounded in the bitter irony that the people this ostensibly successful star feels the most kinship with are those living on society’s margins. Moreso than any piece of recognisable music, scenes like these capture perfectly why it is Garland remains so significant today.
Of course, the main reason to see the film is Zellweger, who is quite extraordinary. What she pulls off here is a delicate balancing act – it is not an impression, but it is not naturalism either. Rather, she portrays someone forever putting on a persona. In conversation, we can see Judy gaging her words and mannerism, speaking not as she wishes to but as she knows ‘Judy Garland’ is supposed to – with one particularly devastating instance being when she makes a candid remark on a talk show about her abuse under contract by Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), then steers into a joke as she senses the audience’s discomfort. The real, hurting person underneath comes through in glimpses, first through subtle things like the pained limp with which she walks, then eventually in moments of haunting vulnerability. One scene late on sees Zellweger express a whole lifetime of inadequacy and hurt in the way she looks at, pokes at, and tastes a piece of cake. While Darci Shaw does a fine job of playing the younger Garland in flashback, moments like this make those sequences all but redundant – every bit of Judy’s history is there in Zellweger’s expressions and gestures.
Both films leave you with a sense of disquiet – a lack of reassurance, a nagging discomfort at what we’ve been shown. At the heart of Joker and Judy’s tragedies is the simple horror of how the world grinds certain people down and makes them hate themselves – something equally relevant in London and Gotham.