Hangover director, Todd Phillips, takes a trip to the dark side with Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck/Joker, DC’s best loved villain. He’s a single man living with his sick mother, working full-time as a kid’s party clown at Haha’s in Gotham City. Phoenix does a brilliant job at tapping into the vulnerability of a man beaten down by society, manoeuvring scenes with childlike innocence and still managing to maintain the repressed menace throughout.
It’s a theatrical playground with many positive qualities, most notably Phoenix’s highly anticipated performance. He steps into the role with ease, fully indulging in the unsettling imagery of Gotham produced by Phillips and his cinematographer, Lawrence Sher, which makes for an incredibly uncomfortable watch. Even when things are as harmonious as the narrative allows them to be, the booming score rings like a warning bell for the impending doom. It’s chilling, it’s dark and it is incredibly unnerving but there’s something slightly arrogant and indulgent in the direction that seems to decide it is great before it allows itself to prove it really is.
Since it can only be assumed it is setting up for a new strand of the DC Universe, the film can only do so much, and a 124-minute run time is a lot of real estate to deal with what is essentially the same beat repeated. A lot of time is dedicated to understanding the everyday mundanities of Arthur Fleck’s life. There’s a painfully boring cycle that he has to live through, including both verbal and physical abuse whilst trying to pursue his dream of becoming a full-time stand-up comedian. There are some beautifully powerful scenes where every positive aspect of the film works in symphony to create something extraordinary and then Phillips pushes his luck a little too far with long takes of Joker indulging in dance sequences that only really land once or twice throughout.
When a movie is gifted an 18 certificate, you’re expecting something truly shocking which Joker doesn’t fail to deliver. It’s brutally gruesome in parts and deeply sinister in others but it’s also questionably offensive. The subject of mental health is one that is popular for this generation, particularly as it’s something that’ll affect all of us either directly or indirectly throughout our lifetime. When the taboo is handled with care it is an excellent communication of our tendency as a society to alienate those who walk different paths to us. The film does, however, deserve every question it’s going to receive around its lack of sensitivity in certain areas. Joaquin Phoenix handles himself well and does his best not to exploit the mentality of Arthur who is suffering with scars much deeper than those of his battle against society.
It’ll be a shock to not see Phoenix nominated for his fourth Academy Award this February. It has everything awards season lives for in both the great physical transformation and the powerhouse performance, but I have my eye set on another winner in Adam Driver for Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story.