Film Review: Joker

Joker is directed by Todd Phillips, and stars Joaquin Phoenix as the man who would be the Clown Prince of Crime, Arthur Fleck, in a grimy, terrifying character study that shows how fear and rage fester in an increasingly disinterested society.

Director: Todd Phillips  Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz, Brett Cullen, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, Glenn Fleshler.

Joker is set in 1981 and follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who suffers from involuntary laughter and pursues a failed career as a stand-up comedian. When we first meet Fleck, he’s working an end-of-the-line job as a clown, fish-hooking his mouth into a pained grimace as he applies make-up in the mirror.

In the first of many unfortunate tragedies, Fleck is robbed by a group of teenagers and chases them, frantically screaming through Gotham City as he is ignored by everyone. Soon after, he’s fired from his job, argues with his therapist about funding for ‘his seven medications’, and becomes enthralled in a narcissistic fantasy that slowly unravels the last threads of his sanity.

Todd Phillips conceived Joker in 2016, and said he was inspired by the 1970s character studies and the works of Martin Scorsese. While the 1988 classic graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke served as the framework for the film – including the famous ‘one bad day’ quote – Joker is a beast entirely of its own. These influences, however, combine to create something entirely fresh for the much-loved D.C villain, all wrapped within an incredibly tight, tense, and beautifully acted masterpiece of cinema.

The main supporting cast – particularly Frances Conroy as Fleck’s mother and Zazie Beetz – and the secondary supporting cast – Brett Cullen as Thomas Wayne, Bill Camp and Shea Whigham as Gotham City detectives, and Glenn Fleshler as a fellow clown – are the glue to the film, all delivering brilliantly downplayed performances that allow Phoenix’s Joker to truly unravel and implode.

An incredible score by Hildur Guðnadóttir frames almost every high-anxiety scene with deeply unsettling strings, while the cinematography by Lawrence Sher deserves as much praise as the editing of Jeff Groth. All of these elements – that are so often the downfall of an otherwise dark and gritty film – work perfectly together; there’s hardly a moment in Joker where you won’t be transfixed to the screen in either terror, horror, or anxious excitement.

Then there’s Joaquin Phoenix. I could write an entire article on Phoenix’s performance alone, but to discuss much more of the film itself would ruin the joy of discovering it for yourself. There are hints of Christian Bale in The Machinist, along with Elijah Wood from Maniac and Javier Bardem from No Country for Old Men littered throughout his portrayal, though Phoenix presents an entirely unique character of haunting, real-world authenticity.

The tiniest details in his performance – a running style moulded through wearing clown shoes, his body-contortion miming, the wheeze and choke on his involuntary laughter – all swell up within the character like some great, tragic black wave, looming over society and ready to break at any second.

His depiction of an unhinged narcissist living in a world that offers nothing, takes everything, and provides no sympathy, comfort, or joy also forces a complex narrative around the main characters. Joker doesn’t give us a hero or villain to love or despise, but instead just flawed humans who progressively become monsters one small piece at a time, over the course of years or decades, simply due to weakness and desire present in human nature.

There are some heavy, adult themes on display through the film’s two-hour runtime, and you’d be forgiven for buying into the notion that Joker is attempting to rake sympathy for the character or his actions. However, there’s far more to the film than its surface-level commentary on power, wealth, elitism and marginalised, forgotten individuals in society.

Joker presents these themes through the eyes of Fleck, and the viewer is given the choice of accepting society – and its real-life parallels – as he perceives it, or choosing to believe there is still hope in the world. The truth is that there are no heroes or villains in Joker, or real-life. There are only humans, flawed and selfish, compassionate and tender, fighting to find reason and meaning to existence, to find love, to find company – to not be alone in the madness of reality.

This is the true terror that Joker presents: a world which finds it easier to hate, separate, classify, and ignore than it does to connect – a world of narcissistic protagonists forgetting that to live is to be part of an ensemble cast. It’s a film that will no doubt inspire fresh hatred for the elite, for anyone deemed to be in a position of power, but it asks a question worth considering: is everyone in the world an awful person?

If the answer is no, then there is still hope, still reason to show compassion to others, to listen and care for another human being, and to live outside of our internal reality for just a moment. For how can two human beings hate each other without knowing each other? If they can, then the Joker and everything he preaches is right, and everything anybody ever valued or struggled for is all a monstrous, demented gag.

Oxford Lamoureaux