Directed by Todd Phillips – Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy
Make no mistake, Joker may be a comic-book character, but this movie owes more to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver than it does to any entry in the comic-book canon.
The iconic nemesis of Batman has been played by many actors, and veered from high camp in his early incarnations to darkly terrifying in more recent outings. However, Phillips has pretty much dispensed with what went before, and here we are treated to a full-on psychotic killer who has been pushed to breaking point.
Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, who develops into the titular character, and we first meet him working part time as a clown for hire. He suffers from a condition that causes him to laugh manically at inappropriate moments, which causes people to give him a wide berth.
He is impoverished, and caring for his sick mother. Basically, he doesn’t have a lot going for him, other than his ambition to be a successful stand-up comic. And he’s not getting anywhere quickly with that. After a literal beating at the hands of hoodlums, and the ongoing metaphorical beating he is receiving from ‘the system’, he slowly starts to unravel, gradually morphing into the menacing villain as he descends further into madness. In doing so, however, he finds himself elevated to deific status by similarly disenfranchised folk, giving him the validation he so requires.
Phillips may have made his name directing comedies, but despite the title, there is no humour here. This is more of a character study than a super-villain origin tale. You could take away the garish make-up and comic-book connection, and what you have is a man whose morality decays because of harsh societal divisions. It’s an examination of what causes people to ‘snap’ – a topic that is oft discussed post tragedy, but never really examined beforehand.
There may be other stars in this film (particularly impressive is the casting of De Niro as a late night talk-show host, echoing his Rupert Pupkin character from another Scorsese classic, The King of Comedy) but they have little more than cameos.
Joker is Phoenix’s movie, and he completely owns the screen. He is extremely compelling to watch, and the alteration to his physicality when he transforms from Arthur into his alter-ego is mesmerising. He manages to be grotesque yet graceful. It is uncomfortable to watch him at times, but Phillips ensures there is no escape with lots of extreme close-ups, which almost make you feel like you can see into the character’s soul.
Of course his performance is aided by some wonderful cinematography, and a fantastic score. Although I was surprised by the brief inclusion of a Gary Glitter track. I don’t think I have heard one of his songs in a mainstream setting since he fell from grace. One can’t help but wonder if Phillips is trying to send some sort of subliminal message with it.
Joker is a stark look at the emptiness of our culture, the effects of mental illness, and the results of toxic masculinity. It is scary because Joker here isn’t a caricature – you could imagine this actually happening.
Extremely dark and completely gripping, Joker more than stands on its own two feet independent of the DC universe. Its biggest problem is that after so radically redefining the Joker, it may be difficult for viewers to shake that off when watching other interpretations down the line.
In Cinemas Now! Trailer below: