Joaquin Phoenix gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the Clown Prince of Crime in Todd Phillips’ unique take on the Batman supervillain Joker, which also won the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival.
Joker is a film that didn’t feel necessary when announced. There has been a glut of superhero movies and there has also been a glut of postmodern takes on superhero movies. We’ve seen Bruce Wayne’s parents killed so many times it feels like we were eyewitnesses to the actual event rather than an audience. As for the Joker himself, Cesar Romero was formative, Jared Leto was forgettable, Jack Nicholson played the part like it was based on his life and Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar, discovering unsuspected depths to the deranged anti-hero.
But Phoenix has plumbed depths so deep and given such a complex, brutal and physically transformative performance, it would be no surprise to see him take home a statuette or two come award season. In a career of highs, this is yet another one. Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a down-at-heel clown for hire. He dons his outfit and swings a sign advertising a closing down sale until some young thugs steal it and beat him up. It’s only one of many mishaps to occur to Arthur. He lives with his elderly mother Penny (Frances Conroy), a deluded woman who writes constant letters to Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), her former boss who she believes will help them.
Together they watch late-night host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) and Arthur fantasises about having his moment in the limelight with the man he idolises. Fleck has ambitions to be a standup comic but also suffers from depression and pseudobulbar affect – uncontrollable laughing fits dissociated from emotion. His joke book is full of pasted in porn and such gems as “I hope my death makes more cents than my life” in childlike scribble. To make things worse, Gotham City with its garbage strikes, its violence and its income inequality, is such a hostile environment it would have Theresa May dribbling with glee.
What follows is nothing short of a portrait in disintegration. Phoenix is stunning: painfully thin, his body is often contorted and beaten, his face at times sorrowful and lost and at other naively hopeful. His laughter is not a manic cackle of joyful villainy, but at times a painful racking fit, at others a loud off-key imitation of human interaction. When he goes to a comedy club, he laughs at all the wrong lines. His obsession with Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz), a girl in his building, is his only ray of hope but this feels too good to be true. And so it goes. Despite his mother nicknaming him ‘Happy’, he quite credibly claims to not having ‘one second of happiness in my entire life’. When he finally breaks, his initial murders are greeted as an act of class warfare by sections of the dispossessed and the already tense city begins to reach boiling point.
Set in the late-1970s/early-80s hinterland, Phillips pays obvious tribute to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, as well as including notes from The French Connection and Serpico. But just as Phoenix’s performance might wink towards Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin, it and he are very much their own thing. This is not a pastiche but a very contemporary and audacious psychological study. Arthur is an incel, his anguish is based on mental illness and trauma he cannot control and his rising fury due to a world of indifference, cuts in social spending which see him cut loose and a savage absence of empathy generally.
Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver radically alter the presentation of the Wayne family, but Joker doesn’t happen in any DC Universe, or any other fantasy. It feels a painfully real subjective character study. The cinematography by Lawrence Sher has that rich colour and grit typical of the urban cinema of the 1970s. Almost every shot seems to stink of the city, a mix of excrement, diesel fumes, street food and disinfectant. One of the finest musicians working in cinema today, Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, provides another stunning score mixed with some period rock and pop, including a Gary Glitter cut which isn’t without controversy.
What we have in Joker is one of the keenest anatomies of madness. We also have a political screed to our own crazy times when the cruelty of the rich and the anger of the marginalised dominate the public sphere. As the film goes on, it becomes increasingly a horror movie and the violence – although limited to a very few incidents – is portrayed as shockingly real. There are also moments of humour – as you’d expect from the director of The Hangover – but the “funny ha-ha” is definitely mixed in with funny peculiar so it’s impossible to say where one ends and the other begins. What it doesn’t feel like is a comic book movie.
The Joker has become the American Hamlet, the role with which actors test their mettle and which changes to reflect the times. There are reservations that this already overlong review can’t accommodate – the depiction of mental illness, the role of people of colour which echo the Safdie brothers’ Good Time – but these are discussions that no doubt will accompany the inevitable back (and forth) lash. We shall be talking about this for some time. Phoenix has created a masterful performance for a film which itself feels like a cracked masterpiece.
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John Bleasdale | @drjonty