Powerful, disturbing and chaotic. Three words that merely scratch the surface on what to expect when watching Joker for the first time. It’s a film that is deeply unsettling at times, while completely sympathetic at others and if it does nothing but make you feel wholly unnerved then it has accomplished what it set out to do.
Joker opens with a lingering shot of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) applying makeup before beginning his day job as a performing clown. He stares into the mirror, places his fingers into his mouth and forces a pained smile while a single tear falls down his cheek. It’s an understated opening and one completely away from that of regular comic-book films. It’s also a sign of what’s to come in this minimalist, unfussy character study of one man’s descent into madness.
Taking a step back from the world-ending, CGI-fests of recent comic-book outings, Joker exists in an all too real world. Gotham city is decaying as waste collections halt, rats increase in numbers, the rich get richer and the poor are dealt more blows as cuts are made and public services are held back. Despite being set in the early 1980’s, Joker presents an all too accurate picture of modern life and the discontent that many people feel on a regular basis. This version of Gotham is unlike any we’ve seen on the big screen before and feels like a living, breathing cesspit.
In Arthur Fleck we have an antagonist who, for the first time, really fleshes out the story of Batman’s greatest villain. Fleck has been abandoned by society, left to look after his sick mother alone while the public-funding for his medication and therapy sessions ends all too abruptly. Even as Arthur attempts to put a smile on his face and the faces of others, he is continually pushed back until he can take no more. While it is hard to find sympathy in his actions or the results of those actions, Joker maintains its key points of a society on edge and a man pushed to the brink, leaving the audience with an understanding of why events have transpired this way.
Whereas films such as Death Wish or Falling Down have shown us men going over the edge before, they have done so in an almost anti-hero kind of way where you feel the need to root for their victory. Joker does not do this fortunately. It’s an entirely difficult and unpleasant experience for the most part, and done so quite brilliantly. To think that the man who directed Road Trip, Old School and The Hangover trilogy could give us a film as restrained as Joker is a bet not many people would be willing to take. And yet, director Todd Phillips has proved any doubters wrong – delivering a film that is bleak, relevant and completely in tune with the characteristics of one of fictions most notorious creations.
In Joaquin Phoenix, Joker has the perfect foil. Worlds away from the madness of Jack Nicholson or the maniacal Heath Ledger, this Joker feels like a different beast entirely. While previous iterations of the character have hinted at or completely ignored his origin, Joker goes the other way and gives us everything in order to show us what exactly makes the character tick. It’s a brave move, especially when Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan’s version took the less is more approach to knowing how he got those scars. Here, we have a character who very much starts out being good and who wants nothing more than to make people smile. He works hard, looks after his mother and desperately wants to be happy. Phoenix, after losing weight, portrays a man about to fall over the edge. He gyrates, laughs and utterly lifts the lid on what it can be like to suffer from mental illness in a society that couldn’t give a shit. Take away the makeup and the comic-book inspiration and Joaquin Phoenix would be a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination.
Joker is an intensely powerful film, and one that does not shy away from its subject matter. It will likely upset many and may even make some question how far films should go in representing their message. But, a film about a character as evil as the Joker should not be a pleasant experience. It makes a statement, and like all great films it will leave you thinking about it long after you have left the cinema.
Joker is in UK cinemas now.