A disturbingly gripping and at times uncomfortable watch, Joker is very, very good – but weirdly sympathetic and intentionally provocative in depicting its version of the villain.
In dirty, volatile 1980s Gotham City, professional clown and aspiring stand up Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) wrestles with mental illness, an unfortunate laughing condition and a dead end life at home with his mother (Frances Conroy). As the city becomes more entrenched in what looks like a class war, Arthur loses his grip on what little sanity he has, sliding to a point where bitterness and illness combine in shocking fashion.
I first of all applaud DC Comics and Warner Brothers for doing something a bit different – there’s absolutely no doubt that’s what this is. We’re not in a shared universe, there’s little likelihood of sequels, and there are no superheroes here – instead, we’re treated to an uncomfortably close to home origin for the psychopath comic book supervillain, in a world uncannily similar to ours.
What this means is that touchstones – characters and places, moments – directly reference the Batman mythos, but there’s no fantasy elements, and not much that would suggest this was directly a Batman movie. Instead, director Todd Phillips (of Old School and The Hangover trilogy!) ignores all this for a frankly jet black, at times very unpleasant story of a man driven to the edge.
Strikingly, Phillips and co writer Scott Silver are almost overly indebted to Martin Scorsese’s films here (he was originally a producer). It’s a hybrid of the Batman villain and De Niro’s Travis Bickle/Rupert Pipkin (of vigilante thriller Taxi Driver and stand up, stalker drama The King of Comedy respectively), sprinkled with a fair proportion of cringe.
As a result, the film has a grungy, sparky edge. Scorsese’s bitter, twisted and ready to explode characters are often trapped in an unfair, broken world only they think they can fix. Joker splices this with the famous character to effective ends, retaining Scorsese’s shocking violence and psychological thrills in often incredible ways – and of course, it’s set in a very Scorsese-esque gritty city.
Phillips shows a steadiness of hand and a gift for staging tension, drama and horror that his previous films never suggested, and his and Silver’s script is above and beyond anything those comedies implied he was capable of. At many points, the filmmaking and the irresistibly grim performance were outstanding – but I found myself uncomfortable with what it was seeming to say and the cavalier way it said it.
There’s an ingrained meanness – twinned with the director’s need to provoke and shock – given full rein, and for all the clever elements this was pronounced. This Joker is not a villain created by exposure to chemicals – he’s a mentally ill man neglected and ignored, such that his illness takes him over and he indulges in his basest instincts.
Making a villain your hero as he does horrific things is something cinema does regularly – but making such a famous character’s “origin” mental illness is incredibly misguided. We watch Arthur struggle with his condition, and see him abandoned by the system; Phillips and Silver abdicate any sense of sensitivity for a desire to provide transgressive, in your face unpleasantness.
The character holds a bizarre hero status among idiots, and an overt celebration of his descent into murder and infamy feels unseemly – we’re made to feel we should back Arthur’s descent into madness, which given the way the character is formed feels really off, and an old fashioned way of depicting something like that. By all means make a gritty, nasty Joker film – but pegging it to mental illness seemed stupidly irresponsible.
Technically speaking, the film deserves strong recognition beyond Phillips’ good (and bad) work. A thrumming, dangerous and unsettling score from Hildur Gudnadottir is an irresistible companion to what’s onscreen, much like her amazing work on Chernobyl, making everything feel that much more uncomfortable.
There are some very strange and unsettling needle drops throughout, not least from Frank Sinatra and (to much appropriate disgust) Gary Glitter, which just add to that uncomfortable tone.
The authentically grimy and threatening 1980s Gotham is flawlessly staged in New York City, with the set design and dressing incredible. You feel like you’re in amongst the grime, the dirt and the neglect, and Lawrence Sher’s cinematography paints this tangibly realistic Gotham with a sickly tinge – everything feels filthy, and use of light and colour only serves to illuminate a ghastly, volatile underbelly ready to explode.
It’s also worth mentioning editor Jeff Groth’s great work, the instability of Arthur’s life and mental state illustrated through clever edits, camera angles and focuses – certain scenes feeling wrong, and others shown to be unreliable, just through the way they’re put together.
Phoenix’s performance, to be frank, is something else. Having only seen one or two recent roles, this was astonishing. Not only physically transforming himself (you’ll feel ill at how thin he got), Phoenix inhabits Fleck throughout in such a way that from the first scene you’re gripped by a sort of horrifying magnetism.
From his tragic yet disquieting depictions of Arthur’s laughing syndrome, through to his almost detached yet hauntingly manic air, the actor steals your attention. I can’t remember a lead performance this intense – it’s part of why the film feels dangerous, and why Phoenix is probably the best actor onscreen at the moment. His performance stuck with me, as I’m sure it will with you – it’s something else.
De Niro is a real boost for the Scorsese-referencing of Arthur’s characterisation – particularly as he’s giving a shit! As talk show host Murray Franklin, the great actor is restrained and offers a more audience friendly, older gent patter – in his scenes with Phoenix he portrays a range and vulnerability that almost seemed like a passing of the torch from one acting generation to another. Seeing them together in something else on more of a par would be amazing.
Zazie Beetz is good as an understanding neighbour and object of Arthur’s affections, portraying a street-smartness and understanding of Gotham’s socio-economic issues that gives us – and Arthur – a view of the bigger picture. Frances Conroy, as Arthur’s mother, is also notably not the domineering mother stereotype, but an enfeebled woman with more depth and mystery than you might suspect. Brett Cullen meanwhile brings an almost Trumpian sleaze to Thomas Wayne, less than cordial as a rich figurehead against the poor, struggling masses than his usual characterisation suggests.
I recommend Joker if you’re intrigued, most notably for Phoenix’s great performance. It’s got a great, unrelenting tone, look and feel – but personally for me it falters on making the centre of the character’s origin his mental illness.