The initial outburst of acclaim for Todd Phillip’s Joker was followed by an equally vocal cry of dismay and critique. For sure, it is not an easy film to stomach, but beneath the provoking exterior is a film executed with impeccable flair. The curveballs that Joker will throw at you stay in your head for hours afterwards, as does the haunting collapse of its protagonist.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a comedian who is going nowhere in life and is on the receiving end of harassment and violence on a frighteningly regular basis. Most significantly, for reasons both personal and societal, he is almost incapable of integrating into the world at large. Instead of the powers that be offering to help him, Fleck (and others disadvantaged by narrow thinking, as suggested several times throughout the movie) are violently cast aside. This toxicity, emptiness and mockery painfully twist Fleck into the clown prince of crime. Fleck may initially evoke your sympathy, but this quickly dissipates as his transformation takes hold.
This is a very different Joker, indeed a very different adaptation of comic lore, than what has been seen before. It plays out like the most classic of Scorsese-directed male downfalls. This ode to Martin Scorsese, who was initially on to produce Joker, never lets up – a Taxi Driver reference emerges in the opening minutes. But where Phillips diverges from this classic take is with his eye for colour, using it to staggering effect as the damaging mantra of ‘just keep smiling’ is played out to a sad clown lament. The stylistic triumphs of Joker are the film’s greatest strengths, followed very closely by some stunning cinematography from Lawrence Sher and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s electrifying, cello-driven score.
Phoenix, also, is in terrifying form. His anguish-laden take on DC’s greatest villain confirms him as one of the greatest character actors working today. He does a phenomenal job of capturing Fleck’s demise with a powerful, tragic performance. His movements at times give the impression that the world is painfully contorting him into something he is not. It’s unlikely that anyone else could have pulled off this two-hour mutation quite like him. He is capably supported by the rest of the cast, especially Frances Conroy as Fleck’s mother Penny, from whom Arthur seems to have inherited his apathy and loss. Robert De Niro’s involvement, after all the publicity it received, is just De Niro doing a role so purposefully written for him. Then again, there is great satisfaction to be had watching that.
Joker is a film that will divide opinion for sure, but much worse has been committed to cinema screens and been met with less scrutiny and panic. This is an unrestrained artistic triumph that lacks sensitivity in parts but cannot be accused of siding with or promoting evil. Instead, it is a warning. The world’s most disadvantaged people are not to be made clowns of by those who would use their power to sweep them aside. If they do, the foundations of their world will collapse. Joker is a stark message about what will happen if this collapse features bloodshed. It is a film that will be picked apart for months, and – thanks to its ending in particular – will likely be debated for years to come.
Joker is in cinemas now.