Joker is the latest DC outing chronicling the origin story of Batman’s most iconic villain, but unlike previous properties Shazam and Aqauaman, it’s a film that feels much more like the publisher’s Black Label comics. Its a darker and nastier affair that comes across almost like a Scorsese film, with an obvious Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy influence. Comic fans will notice a slight departure from source material, The Killing Joke, and other than the occasional Wayne character, the film is free from the confines of having to tie into a wider DC universe – and it’s all the better for it. For all the controversy surrounding the film, it’s not as ultra-violent as expected, favouring a slow burn approach that delves into the psyche of the man who would become the Joker. It’s an affecting and upsetting experience, but that’s the point.
Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker centres on Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a clown for hire who aspires to become a stand-up comedian whilst trying to care for his ill mother (Frances Conroy). It’s 1981 and Arthur is struggling to make ends meet in a broken Gotham that’s littered with ever growing piles of trash, super rats and a growing disparity between the rich and poor. He’s beaten and broken down by society and the numerous medications and counselling he relies upon to cope is cut due to loss of funding. When his hero, late-night TV host Murray Franklin, openly mocks his stand up routine on live TV, he becomes one of the many factors that tips Arthur over the edge, setting in motion his downwards spiral to violence and depravity. His resulting actions will ignite an uprising in the city that will have significant ramifications for years to come.
This isn’t your usual comic book fare; this is a sad, unflinching look at when the system fails a person who’s been struggling with mental health issues and social alienation their whole life, and his consequential unsettling descent into madness. Phillips documents the dark and ugly side of humanity; it’s a discomforting reflection of modern times that addresses difficult themes of mental health, abuse and social and wealth inequality, which all have an underlying effect on Arthur’s tale and that of Gotham. It’s an unsettling and raw look at how an awful chain of events can utterly change a person’s world, events that will eventually shape Arthur into the Prince of Crime.
Phillips brings a stark realism to the iconic villain in a way that I never expected; at times I genuinely found myself empathising with him, before remembering just who he becomes. Leaving the cinema, I found it hard to comprehend what I just watched; on the one hand I felt devastated by Arthur’s inevitable transformation, but on the other I felt a slight sense of disappointment at the film’s more grandiose, and dare I say pretentious, moments. The extended Phoenix dancing sequences definitely felt somewhat self indulgent
Joaquin Phoenix is completely transformed as Arthur, perfectly embracing the maniacal mask with an utterly chilling, yet scarily vulnerable performance. This is a tragic portrayal of a fragile man who has truly hit rock bottom; “all I ever have is bad thoughts” he confesses to his counsellor. Phoenix has adapted a unique, almost emaciated physicality to become Arthur, even down to the awkward way he runs and the uncomfortable sound of his laughing fits – I wouldn’t be surprised if he won a number awards for his performance. Frances Conroy is also tragically superb as Penny Fleck, with Robert De Niro going full circle since his King of Comedy days, with Rupert Pupkin becoming Murray Franklin.
Lawrence Sher’s gritty cinematography really does bring to life a grungey and grimey Gotham, with the added colour grading and costumes proving an impressive homage to late 70s early 80s vigilante movies. Chernobyl composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s chillingly dark score is an absolutely perfect companion to Arthur’s descent; it’s a haunting accompaniment that insights a lurking sense of dread which we all know is inevitably coming.
Despite all of the controversy surrounding the film, Joker is the first of its kind comic book movie that really delves into mental health and trauma, featuring an Oscar-worthy performance from Joaquin Phoenix that will definitely leave you reeling long after the credits have rolled.