“Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?”
This line resonates throughout Joker. The instance it was uttered I knew it meant something. It’s the central idea that fuels Arthur Fleck that is in direct competition with reality. Everything in his life pushes Arthur back, runs counter to his own self-belief; despite everything telling him otherwise, he wants to be funny. Joaquin Phoenix and Todd Phillips wrestle with this idea throughout Joker, the story of one man’s struggle to make the most of his situation while living a life he’s fundamentally unhappy with as it crumbles even further around him. That’s life.
Who is the Joker? Beyond his existence as Batman’s arch nemesis, nothing is truly known about him other than the anarchy he leaves in his wake. He has always been a character that plays directly opposite The Dark Knight, so removing Batman from the equation entirely created something of a blank canvas to explore the origins of one of comic book history’s most defining villains.
And yet, exploring him through this lens, one guided by what he’s done in the past, feels counter-productive given the beast that Todd Phillips has bestowed unto the world. This is as dense an exploration into the character as we’ve ever seen, but at times it felt like a complex character study that was simply given a Gotham mask. Masquerading as a comic book film, Joker launches into the zeitgeist as an art-house piece guided by a towering central performance unlike any other, casting a scarily contemporary socio-political gaze on a world on fire.
Arthur Fleck lives in the shadows of Gotham City, a graffiti laden, rundown area in which he lives with his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy). As he struggles with his own mental state through progressively unhelpful therapy sessions, Arthur cares for his also mentally unstable mother, who believes local millionaire, Thomas Wayne (yes, that one), could help them. After a series of unfortunate events, Arthur’s world begins to unravel along with his own state of mind, and begins to take matters in his own hands, accidentally at first, but inevitably, intentionally.
There’s no hiding from the controversy that surrounds Joker. After it took the festival scene by storm earlier this year, taking home the prestigious Golden Lion award at Venice Film Festival, there was a real sense of fear surrounding the film. The Joker himself is as volatile as they come, and many corners of film criticism had concerns on the impact the film would have on its audience. Having seen it, the controversy and fear surrounding it is not unfounded. It is an aggressive, frustrating, shocking film that is going to be discussed for weeks or even months to come as the inevitable awards conversation heats up. But, let me get one thing clear; Joker is an achievement like no other.
How this is a creation of a man who gave us Zack Galifanakis wearing a baby in a hamper is beyond me. Todd Phillips has crafted an experience with Joker, sticking to his guns from start to finish, never succumbing to the temptation to make this a thriller. It’s a personal, violent drama, looking at the way society fails those less fortunate in a blunt but no doubt effective manner.
A radio broadcast opens the film and further television broadcasts puncture numerous scenes, placing the film in the necessary context; Gotham is dying. Money is running out for the working class while the fat cats run amok in the glitzy financial district. The opening scenes are crucial, numerous tracking shots showcasing how badly damaged the city is with dilapidated buildings on every corner, and police sirens and lights never too far away. Phillips makes Gotham a character of its own, and establishes an us and them aesthetic, never more evident than with a wide shot of the Gotham subway careening towards the skyscrapers on the horizon. Arthur is a product of Gotham City, which makes his inevitable spiral of doom all the more affecting.
It’s important to understand that Joker is unlike any other comic book film that we’ve seen before. In my audience, there was a definite air of unease as the film developed into something unexpected. Despite knowing where the film is going to eventually end up, the journey there is as surprising and shocking as anyone could’ve foreseen. One man dominates almost every frame of the film, and he spends much of the film in silence. Conversations he has aren’t conversations; they’re a collection of people talking at him, unsure of how to deal with him and his overpowering, uncontrollable laughter, frequently pretending to be on his side but eventually simply making fun of him. Arthur listens, watches from afar, as anyone who interacts with him treats him as an Other; something to be feared rather than engaged with. It’s these moments of silence, whether he’s watching his idol, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) on TV, admiring a picture of a fanged clown in the newspaper, or dancing alone in a dirty bathroom, that tell us the most about Arthur. Everything you need to know is painted on his face. Phillips forces you to interpret Arthur’s every move, every tic, every unique body movement. Phillips’ Joker is a broken, suffering, struggling man who’s failing to keep his demons at bay. He’s a fascinating character who is both fighting with himself as much as he’s proud of who he is. Joker is a one-man show. I’m convinced no one other than Joaquin Phoenix could’ve pulled this off.
Phoenix is revelatory. Comparing him to previous iterations of the character feels perfunctory, but he’s certainly going to be in the conversation as the best version we’ve ever seen. It’s plainly clear that Phoenix put everything he could into the role. He spent time developing Arthur’s gait, posture, hand movements, gaze, laugh, smile. The defining Joker laugh Phoenix developed for the role is both uncomfortable and contagious, but the way Phoenix injects moments of sadness, choking, and genuine tears in between guffaws is astonishing, and becomes a genuinely unsettling aural queue for Arthur’s fear. All of this in service of creating a believable character, someone who you could believe to go to the inevitable lengths the film is building towards. This is one of the most captivating performances I have ever seen. Considering he is in every scene, it put so much pressure on his shoulders to deliver; in lesser hands, Joker would have failed.
In the final act, as Arthur undergoes his final transformation into Joker, Phoenix takes an already towering performance to new heights. Arthur’s new persona gives him a level of confidence that is so different to the Arthur we’ve seen before that it confirms that he has left his old self behind. No one cared who Arthur was before he put on the mask. One of the film’s defining scenes – if you’ve seen it, you know the one I’m referring to – is one that’s not left my mind in the hours since it finished. The fear that has been building since the very first scenes reaches its apex in a deliriously terrifying monologue delivered by Phoenix that has been ringing in my ears ever since. For Joker to work, it needed to stick the landing; all of this set up had to lead to something. That something is going to become infamous, both for what happens, and for Phoenix’s performance. Arthur becomes completely, frighteningly unhinged as the film races towards its conclusion, and Phoenix plays it faultlessly. This was the scariest scene of the year.
I’ve constantly mentioned this sense of fear and unease that resonates throughout Joker; it is a fundamentally intense and uncomfortable experience. This is enhanced further by a spell-binding score Hildur Guðnadóttir. There are a few surprising needle drops (one repeated drop of a classic Frank Sinatra song is unforgettable), but it all keeps coming back to the score. The trailer’s dancing on the steps sequence begins with a famous song but then descends into a chaotic, dread-inducing score as Arthur finally lets himself go and expresses himself without fear of judgement. Listening to the soundtrack as I’m typing his genuinely bringing back a level of unease I haven’t experienced for so long. Like how Justin Hurwitz’s First Man score stuck with me for months last year for the sheer euphoria of its high points, Joker’s score is a haunting, melancholic, terrifying piece that I’m unsure I want to experience too much more, despite recognising it as absolutely stunning.
Joker is like nothing I’ve seen before. In amongst the short bursts of grim violence are some moments of genuine tragedy, more than a few dark laughs, and a final act that has to be seen to be believed. Joker isn’t necessarily a film to be enjoyed, per se; it’s a film to be experienced. That experience is an unforgettable one.
Directed by: Todd Phillips
Written by: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Frances Conroy, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Brett Cullen