Directed by: Todd Philips Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro Runtime: 122 mins
Directed by Todd Phillips, this latest incarnation of the clown faced supervillain has seen its fair share of controversy throughout its development right up to its release. Since premiering, Joker has sparked debates about how putting the fabric of violence on the big screen could inspire real life terror. It’s a kind of terror that the DC Universe is familiar with, after the 2012 shooting in Aurora Colorado during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. Police officers have been present at screenings, and lead actor Joaquin Phoenix walked out of an interview when pressed on potential links the subject matter might have with copycats. This is nothing new, with parallels been drawn between Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and the 2005 Red Lake Shootings, as well as the alleged influence of Child’s Play 3 on the 1993 murder of James Bulger. These divisive topics demand a separate lengthy discussion, and while it’s certainly something I’ve reflected on after viewing the film, it’s not something I’m going to fully address here.
In some ways, there may not have been any need for a Joker backstory. With numerous portrayals decorated by the likes of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, numerous manifestations have given this character a good crack of the whip on screen. In light of a poorly executed attempt as recently as 2016 with Jared Leto’s depiction in Suicide Squad, perhaps a hiatus from the antihero would have been justified. Reflecting on Ledger’s stunning performance in The Dark Knight, this was always going to be a challenging project for Todd Phillips. Having been mostly known for The Hangover film series, it was a big departure for him to venture into this bleak cinematic territory. Sure, War Dogs was a stepping stone in the right direction, but the quest to successfully breathe life back into this iconic character in a psychological thriller marked a long way from his early work which included the likes of slapstick college films like Road Trip and Old School.
Phillips has said that a key moment for him on this project was when he secured the services of Joaquin Phoenix, who plays the maniacal titular character. It’s no wonder why he would have felt a wave of assurance after getting Phoenix on board. He was made for this role. Phoenix has often cut an isolated and deeply troubled figure in the characters that he’s immersed himself in. With 2000’s Gladiator, he embodied an entitled and bitterly resentful violent narcissist. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, he portrayed a malleable and troubled young veteran who found himself rejected by society, stumbling along dangerous cult worshipping path. As recently as 2017 with You Were Never Really Here, he played a violent hired gun suffering from PTSD, who lived with his mother and seemed almost completely disconnected from the modern society around him. In all of these, he might have been seen as a victim but was by no means a good guy. However in 2013’s Her, Phoenix showcased another side of his acting ability, eliciting sympathy from audiences when he played a timid and shy introvert marked more by heartbreak and existential depression than violent anger. All of these roles gave him the polish that he needed to prepare him for what may be his most impressive role that sticks out of a distinguished career.
Arthur Fleck is a failing man in a failing society. Getting bits of work here and there, our immediate introduction to Fleck shows us the daily suffering he endures. It’s not amusing, it’s not necessarily tearjerking, it’s just sad. From the very start, it is clear that this film wants you to pity the main character. It doesn’t necessarily demand empathy, but it wants you to feel his misfortune. He works as a sign holder often dressed in full clown gear, living with his mother in an otherwise reclusive lifestyle. While there are many things for Fleck to be sad about, perhaps the most tragic and difficult to watch is the condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably. This often comes at uncomfortable and inappropriate times, and it also serves as the first indicator of the acting talent that’s on display here. Phoenix morphs the laughing into a source of intense physical and psychological pain, both for Arthur and the audience. He makes it sound uncomfortable and unsolicited, and this really succeeds in framing Arthur as someone who lacks any control of his surroundings, initially at least.
While Fleck’s days are tainted by misery and despair, his moonshot ambition is to succeed as a stand up comedian. Inspired by his late night talk show host hero Murray Franklin (think Johnny Carson), he ventures on stage and implodes under the weight of his laughing condition. This is the most pointed attempt that the film makes in getting you to feel sorry for Joker, and it’s hard not to be pulled in. It’s a difficult and disturbing watch, and it’s one of many occasions where the film illustrates the contempt and ridicule that society directs towards those less fortunate and less abled. As Fleck’s struggles worsen, violence ensues. His deteriorating mental health and the crumbling social fabric of Gotham City usher in his descent into chaos, and the results are utterly brutal.
In many ways, everything you’ve heard about this film is true. Phoenix is mesmerising, and the violence is gruesome although not as pervasive as some have made out. Phillips directs well, but the focus is very much on the lead actor here. Apart from the welcome and seasoned presence of veteran Robert De Niro, there’s barely a supporting act that can be picked out as having any significance. It’s all about the titular character, and the camera gets right up in his face on numerous occasions. This can be irritating and overexposed at times, but Phoenix is sublime and carries almost every 122 minutes with his performance. So much so that the lack of a strong supporting cast doesn’t appear to be an issue, and is perhaps even preferable.
An unexpectedly impressive part of this performance is the numerous dancing sequences, some of which you’ve likely seen from the trailers. This expressive dancing takes the edge off some of the violence, as a kind of perverse eye of the storm. It’s also just beautiful to watch, and is helped by the stunning cinematography by Lawrence Sher that sets a brooding tone throughout. This is complemented by Hildur Ingveldardóttir Guðnadóttir, who gives the soundtrack that perhaps the Joker doesn’t deserve but that the film definitely needs. It fills every scene with suspense and impending dread, and doesn’t let you fool yourself into thinking that this story will take a break from its bleak and nihilistic overtones. Martin Scorsese was attached only temporarily, but his legacy is littered throughout this film. The overlap with both Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy is not subtle, but then again nothing about this film really tries to be subtle.
One of the things that attracted the director to this project was the fact that despite numerous interpretations, the joker had never been definitively characterised. This shows, as Phoenix is given the space to put his own stamp on this character study. He does so skillfully and beautifully, but without providing any conclusive or easy answers. But it wouldn’t be a joker film without its fair share of menace, and this film unapologetically gives more than its fair share. It marks a stark and bleak departure from so many of the successful comic book films that have packed out cinemas in recent years. It’s unclear whether the unparalleled success of Avengers: End Game might signify the end of an era. But if Joker marks the beginning of a new one, there may be some dark and provocative stories to come out of DC Comics in years to come.(4.5 / 5)