The Thing of Comedy.
The Joker is bloody everywhere, isn’t he? He’s the poster-child for edgy children in teenage bodies, but also, arguably, the greatest villain ever conceived. Yes, despite the overabundance of Joker-love in today’s age, there is a reason there’s so much of it. The Joker is a damned good creation. A free pass for writers to make their mark on a brilliant legacy. A malleable monster of madness. Indeed, it is now comic lore that the character’s backstory is either untouchable, or completely made up (depending on what side of geekdom you ask). And given this immense freedom beset upon the character, it’s almost surprising that it’s taken this long for a film chronicling his origin(?) to be made. Thankfully, the resulting film opted to ignore the former option, and make up its own morbid take on the clown prince of crime.
But the real surprise comes from the fact that such an intense and dark take on such a tale came from the director of Old School and The Hangover Trilogy. And that it’s one of the best films of the year.
Failing comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) faces daily abuse from all around him, and soon finds himself struggling to hold on to what little bit of sanity he has left, slowly slipping into a world of crime, further rejection, and psychological terror. This soon culminates in the unleashing of a mental beast with a painted face.
After the decidedly mixed bag of their own try and a cinematic universe, which included its own mixed(?) bag of a Joker as played by Jared Leto (they tried to make him sexy, for God’s sake), it’s no wonder that DC might look to fall back on its tried and tested tactic of standalone features with comic-book properties. But it’s surprising to see such a gamble from the studio, given its predilection for trying to keep up with big cinema trends. And it’s safe to say that it has payed off.
Joker is a slow-burn of a film. An intense character study into a bloke who has had a truly bad go at life. Arthur is a man unseen by society, cast aside as an outsider of the highest form. He has a condition which causes him to laugh uncontrollably, and almost never at the right time. He is, ostensibly, a good guy. But to the world he lives in, his name says it all. Until the film kicks into gear, he is not much but a fleck of dust. An insignificance in the system, man. And, indeed, in some corners of the internet, just as Fleck himself is within the film, Phoenix’s Joker has become a target of playful derision. Be it unflattering memes or being dubbed “the patron saint of incels”, it’s clear that Joker‘s impact is being felt. From this point, it’s interesting to see how the denizens of 1980s Gotham might berate Arthur, while in real life we see how we today might treat this sad clown.
Obviously, the film is Phoenix’s show, but the clear bond between himself and director Phillips is almost palpable. It becomes clear that such a brilliant collaboration is the reason for such a brilliant creation. Every camera move is tailored to Phoenix’s moves, every operatic gesture complimented with equally balletic camerawork. The film presents brilliantly majestic sequences amid the chaos of Arthur’s life, creating stark beauty in dank projects. A sequence of Arthur moving himself in a swan-like manner after just committing a heinous act is, frankly, one of the most beautiful shots of the decade. Simple, but engrossing.
To discuss Phoenix’s performance is to discuss the film as a whole, for he carries it with intense gusto, never once letting you fall out of his two-hour plummet into darkness. The film’s take on mental illness is one unseen in most media. Other films considering the subject want you to REALLY KNOW that whomever is mentally ill has something fundamentally wrong with them. But Phoenix’s performance leaves it vague. Notable enough to make Arthur an outsider, but blank enough to make it eerily familiar. This is how Joker hooks you into sympathising with such a character. By refusing to explicitly specify Arthur’s mental illness, and presenting it against the melancholic society he lives in, the viewer imprints themselves onto him. Hell, if you’d had half the bad days he has, you’d probably go crazy too.
What little flaws Joker has can be traced back to its title, as the film only truly falters when it tries to remind you it is connected to Batman. For most of the film, Joker is a grand, brilliant, introspective take on humanity through the eyes of a urchin. It makes you forget that it is, in fact, a film about the Joker. But when it reminds you of its roots with the Caped Crusader, it suddenly lifts you out of the story. Admittedly the tiniest amount, but the simple fact is that Joker is at its best when it focuses on Arthur and not on the origins of Batman’s arch nemesis.
Joker is a brilliant film, boasting stellar work from Phoenix et al, and outstanding vision from Phillips. It is also a scary film. It is an unsettling film that will haunt those who seek full answers to morally ambiguous questions, and shock those who hoped to relate to the title character as a means of remaining “edgy.” It shows the depths anyone can be dragged down to, and presents it with a worrying relevance for today’s times. As Arthur scrawls in his notebook, “the worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” Well, you’ve gotta laugh. Right?