Two Tales of Trauma: Joker vs You Were Never Really Here
Following the release of the much talked-about Joker, from director Todd Phillips (The Hangover, 2009; War Dogs, 2013) and starring Joaquin Phoenix, Ollie compares this grim tale of murder and mayhem to the more measured but equally distressing You Were Never Really Here, also starring Phoenix but directed by Lynne Ramsay (We Need To Talk About Kevin, 2011; Swimmer, 2012).
(This is a SPOILER FREE comparison, but if you would rather watch both of these films knowing nothing at all I would advise coming back after watching them!)
By some bizarre coincidence, the last two films to star Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role tell the same story. Admittedly, they each take a very different approach (with one falling under a very distinct cinematic umbrella), but both this year's endlessly controversial Joker and the lesser-known You Were Never Really Here from 2017 are strikingly similar. Both are tales of trauma, and how that trauma can shape a person and ultimately push them towards a lifestyle that those of us lucky enough to have experienced a more pleasant childhood will likely never come close to and will happily pretend doesn't exist for 90% of the time. For many, it's only when films like Joker and YWNRH dare to scratch the surface of this dreadful reality that it really enters their minds.
The latter of these two films, and the more subtle of the two, is a fantastic film from Lynne Ramsey which details the life of Joe, a brutal but largely silent gun-for-hire who sets out to save a young girl from her abusers. It is a desperately bleak exploration of what pushes a man towards a life of such violence, but one which takes a 'less is more' approach to storytelling. Joe's history is revealed in quick flashbacks, hinting at a childhood filled with violence, distress and self-harm. It is an upsetting watch, but only because of what we don't see rather than what we do, with our imagination left to fill in many of the gaps; a story-telling tool which is incredibly powerful, but one which is too often denied for audiences. At times all that is needed is a hammer and a plastic bag to really convey the nature of this man's life.
Todd Phillips' Joker on the other hand, while being similarly gritty, tells the same story with a bit more pop and bit more colour, stripping away the beard and splashing Phoenix with lashes of blues, reds and greens. Here, the brooding Joe is replaced by a more eccentric Arthur Fleck, this time a clown-for-hire who aspires to be as charismatic and as funny as his idol Murray Franklin (played by Robert De Niro). Despite a few parallels, Arthur is a vastly different character to Joe, this time a social outcast struggling with chronic negativity and an inability to fit in which, in a city plagued with violence and social inequality, makes him a perpetual target. Consistently knocked down or pushed back, Arthur reaches his breaking point and is pushed towards unspeakable acts of violence as his fragile mind begins to crack. Joker provides us with a more overt depiction of mental illness, but one which is perhaps built on stereotypes and myths about those who are often the most vulnerable. It certainly is a film that sits itself within our current reality, but undoubtedly relies on a few already ingrained clichés along the way.
With Joe, we are given snippets of a tortured past. With Arthur, we witness a tortured present, and despite Joker perhaps being the most realistic interpretation of a comic-book character to date, it is Phoenix's early performance, under the more reposeful watch of Ramsay, that offers a truer depiction of a violent life beginning violently.
This is not to say that Joker is a poor film by any means. Its surgically sharp cinematography and utterly haunting score which constantly quivers alongside Phoenix conjure a gloomy and crushingly bleak atmosphere within which his character can slide further and further down towards the end of his rope. It is his second mesmerising performance in as many years and, while his portrayal of Joe is more measured and more pensive, his physical and psychological commitment to the role of Arthur Fleck is truly inspiring and he has offered up a Joker performance that will happily sit alongside that given by the late Heath Ledger.
The most upsetting thing about these two stories is that they are all too real, with childhood trauma (often far more severe than what is depicted in these two films) too often being the catalyst for a life of dysfunction, chaos and violence. Joker and You Were Never Really Here are only two of many successful and fantastic films which broach this subject matter, and both offer wrought, thought-provoking narratives of adversity and society's response to that adversity. For a myriad of reasons Joker will undoubtedly be the more successful of the two, and its achievements are not unearned. But spare some time for the more true-to-life and more pensive portrayal of Joe, and compare these two explorations of trauma for yourself.
For our full review of You Were Never Really Here, click here!