After decades of playing second fiddle to a grown man who dresses like a bat, the Clown Prince of Crime finally gets his chance to step into the spotlight and strut his stuff. A far cry from the CGI and sky-beams of typical comic-book films, JOKER is a nuanced and affecting character study of a man who is beaten down, literally and metaphorically, by an unfair and uncaring society. While it isn’t quite as poignant as it tries to be, and feels unoriginal in its execution, JOKER is still an extremely stylish and engrossing experience, and one that paves the way for a new generation of mature and thoughtful super-flicks.
The film opens on Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a clown-for-hire and struggling stand-up comedian, sitting in front of a mirror and delicately applying his face paint. As tears pool in his eyes and start to travel down his cheeks, smearing his eye make-up, he sticks his fingers in his mouth and stretches out his lips into a pained and grotesque facsimile of a smile. This striking motif effectively sets the stage for the saga of a sad clown that is to follow: within just the first fifteen minutes, Arthur is beaten in the streets while sign-spinning, is rejected for a medication increase he desperately needs, goes home to care for his physically and mentally unwell mother (Frances Conroy), and fantasises that his favourite talk-show host (Robert De Niro) cares about him like a father.
While the depressing circumstances of Arthur’s life are pretty trite, and piled one on top of another can begin to drift towards the realms of excessive overkill, they are necessary to sell the authenticity of his inevitable breaking point. When Arthur guns down three guys on a train car (possibly a reflection of the 1984 New York subway shooting by Bernhard Goetz), it is an understandable, while not excusable, reaction to a lifetime of having his confidence, dignity and happiness chipped away piece by piece. This scene is a catalyst for both character and plot, as it’s here that writer/director Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver really find their narrative footing, taking their colourful and flamboyant Ace of Knaves forward with a decisive and swaggering confidence.
Rather than a radical Jekyll/Hyde transformation, Arthur’s metamorphosis into the Joker is more of a slow and calculated descent into madness.
At the centre of this conviction is the electric and commanding performance given by Phoenix. Initially, Arthur is presented as a coiled spring of a man, burying a lifetime’s worth of resentment and frustration beneath an affable, awkward and kind of adorable exterior. The only thing that breaks this feeble facade is a psychological condition that causes him to burst into fits of compulsive laughter, regardless of how happy, or miserable, he is feeling. For his interpretation of the Joker laugh, Phoenix forces a pained and disturbing cackle from his throat, as if Arthur is choking on his own laughter, while the rest of his face tell the story of a man in great distress.
All of this begins to peel away as the Joker side emerges. Presented as less of a psychotic break and more of a letting go, Phoenix plays Joker as Arthur at his most free, walking tall with a level of confidence he’s never known before, finally letting loose his emotions in bouts of manic violence and sullen intensity. This unbound self-expression is best actualised by his peculiar love of dancing, with Phoenix twisting his uncomfortably skinny frame with a zen-like grace multiple times, before letting loose in his wild and gleeful jaunt in the now famous stairs scene. The slow-burn lead up means that, rather than a radical Jekyll/Hyde transformation, Arthur’s metamorphosis into the Joker is more of a gentle slope: a slow and calculated descent into madness.
Across from Phoenix, the rest of the cast are equally as enthralling, albeit without as much room to develop. As a neighbour with whom Arthur becomes enraptured, Zazie Beetz works dual roles: initially as the genial and caring love interest, and then as the terrified victim, desperate to get an unsettling Arthur out of her apartment, revealing to the audience that he had imagined their entire relationship. As Arthur’s delusional and unstable mother, Conroy flits between frail sweetness and unhinged outbursts at a moment’s notice, and De Niro’s Murray Franklin is a believably charming and funny host, with some great dramatic material during the tense climax, as he confronts Joker over the subway murders.
Joker’s appearance manages to ride a tiny unicycle along the tightrope between utterly unique and instantly iconic.
When he arrives in earnest, Joker cuts a stylish, if slightly sinister, silhouette, with a sleek red suit wrapped around Phoenix’s gangling, emaciated frame. Oscar-winning costume designer Mark Bridges immediately breaks away from the established norm, taking the colour purple out of the equation. While bright greens and yellows are par for the course in most iterations of the character, the rust-coloured suit is a bold departure, conjuring to mind Joker’s Red Hood alias from the much-lauded comic, The Killing Joke (whose DNA can be seen elsewhere in the film as well). Along with the slicked-back green hair and colourful make-up that skews closer to a classic clown face than most incarnations, Joker’s appearance manages to ride a tiny unicycle along the tightrope between utterly unique and instantly iconic.
The rest of the film is just as stylish, with Gotham City’s dull, muted colour palette and trash-filled streets drawing inspiration from the grimy, 1970’s film versions of New York City. While this allows Lawrence Sher to dish up some striking cinematography, it also highlights a problem in the film’s relationship to that era, and Martin Scorsese’s work in particular. From a narrative that reads like a blend of TAXI DRIVER and THE KING OF COMEDY, to the instantly recognisable aesthetic of Gotham, to casting De Niro as the talk-show host, the resemblance that JOKER bears to Scorsese’s legacy goes beyond homage. Rather than a subtle nod to a well-defined era, the excessive borrowing speaks to a lack of confidence in the rest of the film, and feels like an attempt to manufacture legitimacy in the “real cinema” arena, winding up being more distracting than enriching.
Aside from dropping the ball by showing the Wayne’s murder yet again (when a simple hint would have been more than enough), the rest of the plot manages to avoid any other problems in its execution. When trusted to stand alone, there is an extremely stylish character study tucked away here, beneath the nods and references. With some fantastic performances and a story that, while unoriginal, is still extremely powerful, JOKER is a dark reflection of real-world issues, wrapped up in an exciting psychological exploration of the world’s greatest super-villain. While the future for the character is currently about as ambiguous as that ending, the film’s financial success makes it likely that this won’t be Joker’s last laugh, so hopefully he’s busy preparing some fresh material for his next set.
Verdict: 4/5 Paddles