This must be the darkest reading of a comic book character ever committed to film. Make that the darkest reading of any character, comic book or not. Some cinema goers, maybe many, will be genuinely disturbed by it. By devoting a whole film to telling the origin of Arthur Fleck, Joker plunges deep into the damaged psyche of its lead character. Often, it’s hard to watch. There is violence, cruelty, and the unsettling spectacle of the revealing of someone’s mental torment. In giving an utterly committed performance, Joaquin Phoenix gives us a character who repels, fascinates, and evokes sympathy. It is as compelling a performance as you could wish for, and Phoenix keeps us rivetted to the screen throughout.
Director/writer Todd Phillips and writer Scott Silver take their time peeling back the layers of Joker’s illness. When we first meet Arthur we see him as an already unwell man, under the rather inconsequential care of the city’s social welfare system. He has a deeply unusual manner about him, and odd quirks. The depth of this hurt, and the reasons that lie behind it, are gradually revealed, as we see Arthur negotiate his way through a series of relationships: with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), his neighbour Sophie (Zazie Beets) and an assortment of work colleagues, notably Randall (Glenn Fleshler). Also in the mix, and critically so, are Bruce Wayne’s father Thomas (Brett Cullen) and late night TV host Murray (Robert de Niro).
For this to work, Joaquin Phoenix has to deliver, and then some. This is especially so given many will recall the late Heath Ledger’s legendary and Oscar winning take on the character in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Well, deliver is what Phoenix does. His is an overwhelming presence in the film. It seems he is never off the screen. Simply put, he mesmerises. He gives us a front seat for the unveiling of his character’s anguish, as uncomfortable as that seat often is. Phoenix does so with his laugh, his smile, his eyes, and his body movements which can be both graceful and awkward. Director Phillips gives us plenty of time to dwell on that face, and also on the actor’s body, for he is often shirtless. The Joker is stripped bare.
One aspect of Phoenix’s work I found particularly telling and convincing was the way he depicted how a damaged mind can switch from one behaviour to another, and do so quickly and apparently without effort. Awful violence can be followed by compassion. Tenderness can be followed by cruelty. If you’ve ever been with someone who’s experienced a sudden and unexpected grief, you’ll perhaps know how emotions and behaviours can swing wildly and in a very short space of time. For all that this is a story of a comic book character set in a fictional city called Gotham, Joaquin Phoenix often makes us forget that setting entirely, and make us feel as we are indeed witnessing a real madness.
Comparisons with Ledger are inevitable, but in many ways not that useful. Ledger’s Joker was a fully fledged criminal, already in charge of his own gang, and with his criminal philosophy well honed. Phoenix gives us the Joker in his infancy, and, with much more time on screen, can explore the character’s descent in much greater detail. But director Phillips gives a nod to Ledger – at least that’s how I read it – in repeating one scene, or rather one shot, that Ledger made his own in the 2008 film.
The look and tone of the film is grim and gritty and just what is required to take us into the Joker’s world. This is Gotham in the 1970/80’s, a big trashy city suffering under economic deprivation and with many feeling an acute sense of injustice. It’s a fertile place for Joker to be born. The soundtrack is appropriately dark and brooding as well.
The film has attracted criticism for glorifying mental illness. In a time when we see so many examples of how some who suffer from mental illness can cause great suffering in the community, this is perhaps a fair point. The squirming we may do in our seats watching the film may well be exactly for this reason. But it is also a time when we can discuss mental health much more openly. What saves the film in this respect may be that its story doesn’t just show us a madman running amok. It gives us reasons which may lie behind his behaviour. These may evoke pity, and perhaps revulsion, but at the very least they provide some understanding. There seems little room for glory.
Joker sets a new bar in this genre. While it contains enough references to the Batman story to satisfy fans of that saga, I suspect that even someone who has no interest in superhero films at all would still find this film a grim and compelling piece of cinema. Very highly recommended.