“Sometimes I think I have felt everything I’m ever gonna feel. And from here on out, I’m not gonna feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.”
Although Her is ostensibly science fiction — one of its central characters is a sentient artificially intelligent operating system — Spike Jonze approaches this ambitious film as a traditional love story in which one of the participants simply lacks corporeal form. Theodore and Samantha’s chemistry rests as much on Scarlett Johanssen’s charm and curiosity through just a disembodied voice (no doubt recorded with a great deal of direction when she replaced Samantha Morton who originally voiced the role during filming) as it does on Joaquin Phoenix’s presence onscreen. Jonze uses the premise of this unusual relationship to deconstruct the loneliness of modern life as we regard one another from an increasing distance and — one decade and a global pandemic later — his vision of how our computer-dominated society is evolving feels eerily accurate. Theodore, sympathetically underplayed by Phoenix, is a kind and creative man struggling with divorce and, although he has friends and colleagues who like him, only his OS seems to understand how to support him. Whatever one’s view of the relationship, its effects on Theodore are tangible, and that is where Her, with its non-judgmental perspective, truly fascinates.
A refreshingly different take on the hired killer movie that stands in stark contrast to the slick professionalism of John Wick, Joe is capable but plagued by the trauma of his work and his past. Joaquin Phoenix is a deliberate and slow-moving burly mass (physically the antithesis of his emaciated Joker) wielding a brutal hammer (think OldBoy). That I couldn’t decide how I felt about You Were Never Really Here whilst watching it is a testament to Lynne Ramsay’s skill at subjective filmmaking — everything is experienced from Joe’s perspective. In particular, this lends itself to a powerful depiction of trauma, bleeding into reality in short bursts of debilitating intrusive thoughts rather than the pop culture staples of narrative flashback or violent outburst. Moments of quiet, ethereal beauty feel equally appropriate. The film ventures into dark territory of child trafficking at the hands of political elite but, although Joe gets embroiled in this intrigue, there is no thriller-like mystery to unravel. Comparisons with Taxi Driver are warranted, particularly in the exploration of social isolation, although Ramsay’s focus is narrower, pared back to the essentials with a running time of under 90 minutes.
“The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”
Joker abandons the formulaic comicbook movie to widen the canvas in another strong argument against the connected universe that DC has fumbled in its attempt to chase Marvel’s success; the result is unrelentingly bleak, uncomfortable viewing but utterly mesmerising. The film will be divisive less because of controversial content than because of expectations about how its titular subject will be explored. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is extraordinary, his emaciated contortion as unsettling as his wild laughter and introspective gaze. However, despite the extreme close-ups and unreliable perspective, the script does not really delve deeply into Joker’s psyche — instead it reflects society’s treatment of such an individual: the ostracisation and abandonment of the mentally ill. The character’s violent acts are brutal and shocking, never cathartic or glorified, with Fleck openly eschewing any political purpose ascribed by others, but the film invites us to understand how they occur. Todd Phillips channels Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, de Niro’s presence making no secret of these inspirations. Fleck’s talk show appearance reflects society’s willingness to mock and exploit the vulnerable (reality TV being particularly guilty), shying away when it becomes awkward rather than entertaining, as if the person has suddenly become an affront to our sensibilities. Joker is at its weakest when tying itself into the Batman universe, cursory scenes with a young Bruce Wayne serving no real purpose. I also wish the film had found a more a focused ending to demonstrate whether Phillips’ vision was driven by intent rather than accidental, but this is unsettling, haunting cinema in the very best way.