Simultaneously dream-like and brutally real, Todd Phillips’ Joker is a fascinating, ambiguous, moral maze of a film, pivoting around a masterful, informed performance by Joaquin Phoenix. The film tells the story of Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) as he transforms into the eponymous Clown Prince of Crime, exploring how Gotham City falls into the hands of pop culture’s most infamous madman. Most adaptations of the character conveniently gloss over why hardened criminals take orders from a grown man in fancy dress. Joker makes the whole thing seem chillingly credible.
The Joker’s tragic flaw has always been his pride. His philosophy has no logical end-point because it isn’t a philosophy at all. Like Fight Club’s Tyler Durden or Watchmen’s Rorschach, his actual motivations are grounded less in reason, or a desire for progress, more in justifying his own existence, regardless of how many times he is proven wrong; it doesn’t matter that in Alan Moore’s seminal 80s graphic novel The Killing Joke, his “one bad day” theory isn’t enough to turn Commissioner Gordon into the next clown prince of crime, or that at the climax of Nolan’s The Dark Knight, neither ferry chooses to blow up the other. At the climax of Joker, Fleck appears on Murray Franklin’s (Robert De Niro) talk show, opining that the system is to blame for his actions; Franklin is unconvinced, disgusted even, at his shameless self-pity – but never mind him. Outside there are riots in the streets.
In this Gotham, people think the Joker might just have a point. After all, when there are thousands cheering your name, hailing you as a saviour, wouldn’t you overlook a few holes in your own logic? But how did we get here? How did a brightly-coloured buffoon offering vague platitudes become the figure-head for a working class movement to unseat the system that left them behind?
With nowhere productive to place their anger, the dispossessed of Gotham’s conservative hellscape rally behind someone who happened to be in the right place at the right time, who knows how to work the crowd, who has been ridiculed and condemned by the snobbish media, and who stands for nothing. Was Phillips intentionally channeling anyone in particular when crafting the Joker’s rise to power? Probably not. But he is aware that it’s far easier to dismiss the angry mob wholesale than to admit that they may have legitimate grievances.
Low wages, crumbling infrastructure, cuts to public services – they’re all on display from the film’s opening shots onwards. The image of 1981 – a palette of yellows and browns – is a far cry from the nostalgic neon bubblegum paradise we’re used to in Stranger Things, IT and Black Mirror‘s “San Junipero”. In Joker, the decade is dirty, diseased. You can practically smell it through the screen. Lawrence Sher’s wonderfully sinister cinematography, full of dark shadows and blurry colours like tears on oil paint, delivers a uniquely grubby Gotham City.
Despite this, Phillips assumes the audience to possess the critical distance to recall that the Joker is the bad guy. To begin with, yes, we do sympathise with Arthur; Phillips leaves it up to us to decide when and why we stop feeling that sympathy. But stop we will. His crimes are brutal. The violence is tactile, and – for the most part – unprovoked. No one is forcing Arthur’s hand. He is not merely a product of his environment or his horrible hidden past – he just really likes killing people. Many people are dealt a far worse hand in life and play their cards far better; this movie is not about those people. This is about a man who throws the meds down the drain and goes on a rampage, while the clown-masked citizens of Reagan-era Gotham cheer him on.
Phoenix is fantastic as the childlike Arthur, but as the Joker, he knocks it out of the park. Taking slices of inspiration from previous incarnations of the role, his Joker is the purest translation of a character from page to screen since Gregory Peck played Atticus Finch. When Fleck dances mockingly before the cops who have failed to arrest him, he’s Cesar Romero. When he guns down those three yuppies in cold blood, he’s Jack Nicholson. When he waxes philosophical about the public services that have let him down on live television, he’s Heath Ledger. When he bursts into fits of visibly agonising laughter, he’s Mark Hammil. But throughout all this, he’s the Joker, a hand-drawn nightmare ripped straight from the comics. A lot of credit here must go to costume designer Mark Bridges, whose variation-on-a-theme outfit feels both fresh and faithful at the same time.
Joker feels like a cautionary tale, an urban legend, and the showcase for one hell of a performance by Phoenix all rolled into one. It’s unsettling, it’s uncompromising, and it doesn’t give you any easy answers. In a decade saturated with comic-book fare, Joker is the kick-up-the-backside the genre desperately needs.
Joker is now showing in cinemas nationwide.