In Gotham City, mentally-troubled comedian Arthur Fleck is disregarded and mistreated by society. He then embarks on a downward spiral of revolution and bloody crime. This path brings him face-to-face with his alter-ego: “The Joker”.
The Joker is one of the most iconic figures in comic book (and cinematic) history and after memorable portrayals by Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger and em, Jared Leto, you could be forgiven for questioning if we needed another film about the ‘Batman’ villain, let alone a standalone origin story. The film is directed by Todd Phillips, best known for comedies such as ‘The Hangover’ series, and it’s a character study of a man disillusioned with society and his life, which ultimately drives him to become the crazed villain we’re familiar with from Batman lore. It’s a movie based on a comic book character but it could have been about anyone (this is the least ‘comic book’ film out of any I’ve seen) and that’s what makes this so unsettling, effective and frightening.
The setting is Gotham in the past, most likely 1970s, a grimy, rundown city bubbling on the precipice of trouble with the growing divide between the have’s and the have not’s starting to show cracks. Arthur Fleck is one of the have-not’s, a mentally ill loner who lives with his mother (Frances Conroy) and works a menial job where he has to dress up as a clown. He’s delusional, but not yet dangerous, until a series of events start to turn him from a strange but harmless individual into a sociopathic killer. The ease of the transition and the genuinely gritty approach to the filmmaking is the most effective and startling aspect, and comparisons with modern day ‘lone gunmen’ are expected and earned from the way this plays out. Phillips has clearly looked to Scorsese for inspiration and the film borrows not only clear reference points in ‘The King of Comedy’ (Fleck is obsessed with becoming a comedian and appearing on a late night talk show, ironically in this case one hosted by Robert De Niro’s character) and ‘Taxi Driver’, but in the look and feel of Gotham City which borrows more from the way Scorsese shot New York in the 70s and 80s than from previous ‘Batman‘ films
I thought this was a really superb film on pretty much all accounts, not least Joaquin Phoenix’s performance which is every bit as potentially iconic as Ledger or Nicholson. Phoenix is an actor capable of elevating virtually any script but the success of ‘Joker’ is that his performance is matched with a terrific script that gets at the heart of the character and the world that he inhabits. The history from the comics is weaved in seamlessly and enhances the world building without detracting from the character study, and I thought the themes and questions ‘Joker’ raises were thought provoking, if unsettling and uncomfortable to get your head round. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score is incredibly effective at creating a dark mood that permeates every scene, and the musical choices that accompany the score are well placed (Cream’s ‘White Room’ is superbly used in particular). This is Phoenix’s film but I liked a few of the supporting performances as well, not least Bill Camp and Shea Whigham as two downtrodden cops (TV writers note – I’d happily watch a series about these two as ageing detectives who’ve seen it all before…).
‘Joker’ seems to have polarised critics after its initial round of glowing festival reviews, but I thought this was an engrossing, audacious piece of filmmaking and certainly the most groundbreaking comic book film in some time, probably since Nolan first tackled ‘Batman’ in ‘Batman Begins’. It’s certainly not a film you’ll forget easily in any case!
Directed By: Todd Phillips
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, Douglas Hodge, Josh Pais and Brian Tyree Henry