Updated: Dec 20, 2021
Part of the peculiar majesty of the Joker character is found in his tendency to proffer contradictory and inconsistent versions of his own origin. Put simply, he cannot keep his story straight. This particular inclination, viciously highlighted in the pages of Alan Moore’s legendary graphic novel, 'The Killing Joke' (1988) - and expertly woven into the fabric of the Heath Ledger incarnation of the character, in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) - is the primary reason for the initial uncertainty that greeted the news of this new, Batman-free take on the Clown Prince of Crime. The Joker is an anarchic force of nature, and for many, providing him with a definitive source of inspiration is akin to offering behavioural therapy to a cyclone: foolish and unnecessary. Yet Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019) overcomes this issue by ensuring the journey of Joker’s alter ego, Arthur Fleck, is irresistibly compelling.
Phillips’ film is set in the teeming, fetid mass of Gotham City, circa 1981: a failed metropolis on the verge of war with itself. There is a controlling cadre of the wealthy and privileged on top, with everybody else scrambling for meaning down below, in the dank chasm of the world-at-large. This is a place where the shit very definitely rolls downhill, soaking the vast majority in ever-thickening layers of decay, hopelessness and fear. It is a familiar scenario, and though the volume of despair has been amped up to twelve, the world we witness through the eyes of Fleck - brought horrifyingly to life by a truly staggering performance by Joaquin Phoenix - is not so far removed from the one in which we live today. It is a world of violence, blanket intolerance and disconnection. This simple notion of society has rattled many cages, and prompted frantic soul-searching and hysteria on the part of persons so drenched in paranoia, they fear the supposed power of a movie far more readily than the actual firepower of a gun.
Joker is an intense, borderline oppressive viewing experience, that presses down upon you like the afterglow of an especially hearty banquet, and this is very definitely the director’s intention. Arthur Fleck is obviously troubled, and the weight of what is happening to and around him - coupled with the necessary knowledge of what he is destined to become - menaces the narrative throughout. Phillips uses his camera in an invasive manner, and as Fleck falls increasingly into desperation, he is stalked by the lens and serenaded by composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s brooding score. Contrary to popular perception, the film’s use of violence is not gratuitous, but considered and precise; a scarlet scalpel, rather than a claret-soaked cudgel. Joker doesn’t shy away from the horror of a tested mind finally snapping, and when the aforementioned violence arrives (and it certainly does), the application feels balanced and precisely honed. It is a crimson fireworks display, in honour of a hopeless man who has finally become a beautiful monster.
Much has been made of the supposed sympathy one can feel for Fleck, as life boots him up the arse repeatedly, but I’m not so sure ‘sympathy’ is the correct term. Arthur Fleck is undoubtedly a victim, riddled with insecurity and tormented by an acute social disability that leaves him open to daily ridicule and abuse. This is undeniably sad (and the root of the sympathy argument), but the luxury of fiction affords both filmmaker and actor scope to construct the most dramatic backdrop imaginable, in order to elicit the desired emotional response. Fleck is trampled into the dirt, and though this is very capably achieved, it is far from subtle. The biblical figure of Job was a loafing part-timer compared to the suffering of Arthur Fleck. It is this obviously linear progression towards boiling point that precludes any authentic sense of sympathy.
This is less of a criticism, and more of a rebuttal to those who cannot differentiate between sympathy and empathy. The film does not make Arthur Fleck or, by extension, Joker, sympathetic: it simply tells his story in a very deliberate manner, and whatever understanding or pleasure a viewer derives from Fleck’s actions is an essentially empathetic reaction. This is the reason why certain individuals have balked at the content of the film: they can’t stomach the idea that they themselves, if pushed, just might acquiesce to that base urge to fight back. Joker shows you abuse, neglect, violence, hope and revenge, and dares you to acknowledge them all as the truth. This is simply too radical a notion for certain delicate entities to bear. As a species, we instinctively recoil from things that threaten to get under our skin. This film, driven along by the tidal wave of Joaquin Phoenix’s startling transformation, burrows deep below the surface and makes itself at home.
Phoenix, in the guise of Arthur Fleck, crafts a totally believable vision of a neurotic, downtrodden and perpetually victimised failure, who holds no tangible connection to the human race beyond his obviously dotty mother. He is twitchy, solemn and out of sync, and his continued existence festers like an open wound. His gradual ‘becoming’ is a step-by-step transition, and the moment of his true emergence is possessed of a terrible, almost balletic beauty, and is unnervingly cathartic in its execution. Having been baptised in the blood of men who were far from innocent, the paint is applied, the hair is greened and the suit is donned, and Joker frolics into existence to the strains of Gary Glitter’s 'Rock and Roll Part 2'. The use of this particular song has stirred understandable controversy (particularly in Britain), but the awful truth of Gary Glitter - a monster hidden in plain sight - makes for both a fascinating juxtaposition, and a deeply provocative blurring of fiction and reality. It is arguably hideous, yet you never once look away from it. The ‘rebirth’ scene is a distressingly powerful and hugely controversial sequence, that pushes the boundaries of both taste and artistic merit.
Though understandably lost in the maelstrom of the central performance, there are some decent supporting performances on display. Brett Cullen breathes life into a surprisingly smug, sanctimonious incarnation of Thomas Wayne. The relatively unheralded Zazie Beetz walks the line between sass and vulnerability in the role of Fleck’s neighbour and love interest, Sophie Dumond, and Frances Conroy is suitably affecting in the role of Arthur’s mother, Penny. In case you were wondering, I haven’t forgotten about Robert De Niro’s presence. The world’s most overrated actor is used symbolically within the film: both as an acknowledgement of the stylistic debt Joker owes to, amongst others, Taxi Driver (1976), and as a means of gaining additional credibility by association. De Niro brings nothing substantial to the role of talk show host Murray Franklin, other than a decent suit and the name ‘Robert De Niro’, and is little more than overpaid window dressing, but he serves his purpose, and the conclusion of his character’s arc is satisfying (and hilarious).
A potentially understated aspect of this new incarnation of the Joker is the extraordinary physicality Phoenix brings to the role. In contrast to Batman, who is chiselled out of granite and possessed of incredible brute strength, Joker is intended to be lithe and wiry; bending and coiling like a spring (or a serpent). Joaquin Phoenix embodies this ideal; his Joker is seemingly built out of Indian rubber. He is unbreakable, yet strangely graceful. He is a manic force craving applause, and by the end of the film he has found his audience. Phillips intends the Joker to be the culmination of Arthur Fleck’s journey, so what we see of the actual persona is raw and unhinged; an extended preview of what might subsequently come, should all the relevant parties - most notably Phoenix - wish to delve back into the deep and explore the character in even greater detail.
The Joker character and the silver screen are, by now, comfortable bedfellows. Jack Nicholson’s Joker was suitably demented and convincingly murderous, but mostly he was just ‘Jack’ in face paint with the volume turned way up. Jared Leto aimed for gauche radicalism, but was undermined by the chaotic state of Suicide Squad (2016) - a film in which he played so fleeting a role - and was blown off the screen by the rip-roaring authenticity of Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn. I’d love to see him afforded the opportunity to flesh his version out, but sadly this is unlikely to happen.
For my money, the definitive cinematic Joker remains the calculating sociopath brought so memorably to life by the late Heath Ledger. His scar-laden clown was both fully-formed and completely lethal; an irrepressible force, rocketed into life by Ledger's resolute desire and absolute will. In stepping back and daring to show us a life before the purple, Joaquin Phoenix has created his own multi-faceted incarnation of one of pop culture’s most enduring villains, and provided a bravura performance in what is certainly one of the greatest comic book-inspired films ever crafted. Todd Phillips' Joker will hopefully enjoy the awards recognition it so plainly deserves, but only time (and the Academy) will tell on that front. It is a bleak and unrelenting film, and for all its powers of subversion and mischief, it presses some fairly crude buttons, but it stands as a bold and undeniably brilliant film, propelled by a stunning, Oscar-worthy performance by one of the great chameleon actors of our time. For a film that was seen as a huge risk, that’s quite the punchline.
If Christopher Nolan's 'The Dark Knight' trilogy is often credited with opening the door to added realism in the superhero/comic book film genre, then Todd Phillips' Joker (2019) pretty much kicks the door off its hinges. Gotham City has always been a fictional representation of the dark underbelly of humanity and, as depicted in Joker, the line between fiction and reality has become irrevocably blurred. Joaquin Phoenix's portrayal of the central character is an utterly committed and convincing performance, and the film as a whole is a bleak and uncompromising depiction of the extremes of a mentally unstable man who revels in chaos.
There isn’t much in the way of levity in Joker – apart from the occasional streak of jet-black humour – and there is a certain sharp relief in emerging back out into the sunlight after spending two hours submerged in the darkness of one of pop culture's most infamous villains. Talk will undoubtedly turn to 'who wore it best?' in terms of the definitive take on the character, which is really an aimless discussion. However, it is perhaps true that the posthumous success of Heath Ledger's mesmeric and award-winning transformation in The Dark Knight (2008) has arguably directly led to Phoenix's astonishing interpretation. Discuss.
As Dan has suggested, the release of Joker has been met with a full range of reactions, from those declaring it a masterpiece to those decrying it as a morally bankrupt piece of trash. Joker is ultimately an utterly superb and unrelenting nightmarish ballet, painting the town a tragic shade of crimson red.