When it was announced that Todd Phillips (director of the Hangover trilogy) was writing and directing the latest incarnation of The Clown Prince of Crime there was, naturally, trepidation on whether he could do justice to the iconic and beloved DC villain. Penned as a character study on the origins of the psychopath, it had one thing that piqued the public’s interest – Joaquin Phoenix was to take the lead.
Set in 1981, Gotham City is going through a period of civil unrest. Rife with crime and poverty the smelting pot of malcontent acts as a backdrop to Arthur Fleck’s (Phoenix) story, a troubled man with aspirations of becoming a stand-up comedian. When we first meet Arthur (who works as a clown for hire) we are immediately introduced to the internal torment he battles with on a daily basis as he tries to force a smile through his tear-smeared clown makeup.
Arthur is a product of Gotham’s impoverished predicament; he’s poor, malnourished and suffers from a neurological disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times. He exists in a world that doesn’t fully understand him nor really wants to. When the system he depends on seizes his medication and ends his therapy sessions with his support worker, we witness his metamorphosis.
This is an absolutely mesmerising, physical performance by Phoenix. It’s a brutally honest portrayal of a man suffering from mental health issues that never strays into cliché. Pain, anxiety and a strange sense of endearment oozes from every frame he’s in. It’s a complex performance for a complex character – simply put, it's stunning. There was never any doubt that Phoenix would be able to give his take on the Joker the depth it needs and when he does go ‘Full-Joker’, his anarchic and murderous tendencies are nicely married with Arthur’s vulnerability from the first act, with echoes of this creeping into his performance during his final scenes.
More importantly though – and this has always been a staple of any Joker performance – he’s fun to watch and unpredictable to behold. Phoenix (already considered one of the finest actors of his generation) truly cements himself amongst the greats. Of course there will be some that will compare Phoenix’s performance to Heath Ledger’s staggering portrayal for The Dark Knight. The honest answer is they aren’t comparable – both performances are right for their respective films yet, toe to toe, I find myself more drawn to Arthur Fleck.
With such a fantastic performance at its core you can be forgiven for overlooking the understated aesthetics of Joker. Clearly taking a cue from Martin Scorsese, Philips has crafted a look and feel akin to (one of) Scorsese’s masterpiece’s Taxi Driver with a dash of Death Wish thrown in for good measure. The underbelly of Gotham looks ill, with a sickly yellow and green colour palette that’s nicely juxtaposed with the more affluent, brightly lit areas of the city. It's a gritty and realistic 80s setting, wonderfully captured by cinematographer Lawrence Sher with some assured directing by Phillips – particularly during Joker’s more euphoric moments – sharing some beautiful music courtesy of Hildur Guðnadóttir.
When Arthur finally realises his dream of becoming a guest on the Murray Franklin Show (Robert De Niro) the parallels to another Scorsese film in terms of look and story structure, The King of Comedy, are very apparent. Despite the similarities these parallels never feel like a rip-off, more a nod (albeit a very large nod) to a director and era that has had a large influence on Joker. If there is one thing I can’t quite get my head around (and it is minor in what is otherwise a fantastic piece of film, but I feel it needs to be pointed out) it’s the inclusion of a Gary Glitter track. Part of me was searching for the trail of thought on this; was it meant to be ironic due to the abuse Arthur suffered as a child, a track by a despicable person for a despicable character, or was Phillips simply trolling his critics? What I do know is this is a man who cast and lauded Mike Tyson (a convicted rapist) in his Hangover films – subtlety is not always on the menu.
Despite the 80s setting, Joker is still poignant for today’s audiences and has caused quite the controversy (the use of ‘that’ track aside) around potentially creating the spark for mass incel-terrorism. The film’s violence is sparse, but fast, brutal and visceral when it happens. There is nothing glamorous about Arthur’s actions, nor are they truly justified by the film; any empathy you had for Arthur turns to pity.
Of course the general media (including social) will sensationalise this and shoehorn their own preconceptions around the white middle-aged incel male. I see Joker as a cautionary tale, rather than the incitement to violence some media outlets will convince you it is. It’s a hard-hitting portrayal of a mentally unstable person – the kind of person you and I may come across daily – and Joker holds up a mirror to modern society asking, ‘which kind of person are you?’ It lingers long after the credits roll and may (should) get you thinking about how we treat one another.