After talking some serious talk, it was up for debate if The Hangover director Todd Phillips could pull-off the challenge of making Joker a film which sidestepped its comic book origins and deliver something with more gravitas than your usual action-fuelled superhero movie. Amazingly, Phillips has managed to do it, crafting a film which has some hefty dramatic clout – and something to say about the state of society today. It’s not quite the masterpiece that some are saying it is, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a vital piece of cinema.
Joaquin Phoenix is Arthur Fleck, a lifetime loser who is scraping together a living as a clown and children’s entertainer. Arthur lives with and looks after his ill mother (Frances Conroy), a former employee of Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), Gotham’s most powerful citizen and potential candidate for mayor of the city. Fleck is obsessed with becoming a stand-up comedian and every night he watches Robert De Niro’s Murray Franklin on his late night talk show.
The world is constantly pushing at Arthur Fleck and he begins to push back, slowly at first but soon he will have the ultimate last laugh.
A film which stands alone from Batman in a general way, Joker still finds itself wrapped in the Dark Knight’s milieu. It’s subtle in its nods to Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s creation but it firmly sits as a film. Phillips’ Joker is brazen in its open homage to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy but it also has certain moments which echo visual cues from William Friedkin’s 1970s masterworks, The French Connection and The Exorcist. For a film which is effectively a character study, Joker packs an impressive visual punch and credit must go to cinematographer Lawrence Sher, who along with composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, has managed to give Phillips’ film some serious weight.
At the centre of Joker is Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck, a powerful performance from an actor who isn’t afraid to go to dark places. Phoenix’s turn riffs on Alan Moore’s seminal 1980s graphic novel, The Killing Joke but it’s very much its own thing. We see a man already at the brink of madness in the films opening frames but that’s only the beginning for what’s in store for this take on one of pop culture’s most iconic villains.
Joker isn’t a film which is enjoyable – it’s tough going and Arthur Fleck isn’t a character who you are meant to like. You can see why there are those who believe this might incite some people to rise up against a world that puts them down, but cinema is a place that (at its best) should offer up challenging and disturbing themes and situations. Joker does this and much more. Is it enjoyable? No. Is it essential viewing? Absolutely.