Why so serious? It would seem there are a few reasons.
Back when it was announced that The Hangover’s Todd Phillips would helm a standalone DC comic book origin story for the clown prince of crime The Joker, people were immediately annoyed. Even when Joaquin Phoenix was cast in the title role there seemed to be a queue forming for people ready to dislike a film that – so they thought – came with a needless story. And then the hype train started to roll. A rapturous performance at the Venice Film Festival, oscar buzz and initial rave reviews soon was turned into a ridiculously over-publicised and jittery heated online debate ahead of release about incel violence and school shootings, leading to a picture that has divided and then some. Like the debate surrounding video games like Grand Theft Auto, the now thought of as ridiculous perception that Heavy Metal equates to unbridled aggression and the whole video nasties saga, Joker shows that art will still be held accountable for the ills of this world, even though people should really look elsewhere and indeed around them for a real explanation.
In 1981, lonely clown-for-hire Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) lives with his mother and tries to make sense of a wild world he feels has abandoned him but as his mental illness begins to spiral and society continues to relentlessly push, lies and abuse give way to a rising darkness that threatens to take him and Gotham over.
The word masterpiece is thrown around quite a lot nowadays but if you want a one word definition of Phillips’ dark origin tale, this word fits the bill. Joker is a flooring piece of comic book inspired cinema, that is indebted to Martin Scorsese, most notably The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, with a destiny to likewise become a future classic, in the same vein as Fight Club. Joker is sometimes subtle and other times a sledgehammer blow and Phillips and Scott Silver’s screenplay dares to venture where most will not. Some will be sickened, some will be inspired to discuss and some may even notice truths, this is why art in general is so fascinating. And make no mistake about it, with its harrowing portrayal of mental illness, an uncaring world, corporate coldness and snobbery, and violent societal anarchy resulting from gaping divisions, Joker is a piece of challenging, exceptional and compelling art.
As for the controversy? It’s inflated but understandable. This film presents one of the most realistic depictions of (high) society and lost humanity in some time and perhaps it is the fact that the film turns a cracked mirror on our separated world and us, that has made people uncomfortable and angry. We think ourselves so improved and enlightened but cannot even be trusted to discuss a movie without anger, moral panic and fear. Joker is a frightening watch sometimes but the scariest part is that this twisted tale of brittle humanity pummelled to the point that it all disintegrates away, is entirely appropriate of our era because our era is one perfect for allowing dark thoughts to percolate into something stronger and more dangerous.
Like Breaking Bad with Bryan Cranston‘s Walter White (and other characters), your sympathies for Phoenix’s Arthur are challenged by the growing levels of criminality he comes to commit but this is a heartbreaking and powerful drama that – far from making its legendary comic book figure a “incel icon” or hero – uses the character to tell a relevant story of an innocent but damaged person continuously pushed past an area of no return. There has to be a moment where too far is too far and darkness prevails and if we facilitate that internal takeover through our apathy, then where will it end? This is a serious statement on a failing system, mental health and its destructively shattering power.
Some may call it cynical but while evil is sometimes unexplainable, it is often the opposite and understanding how a monster is made is the path to solution, the more we resist the difficult answers, the more very little will change. In fact the film does place moments within, where a different path could be taken (Brian Tyree Henry’s genuinely concerned Arkham employee, kind co-worker Gary played brilliantly by Leigh Gill, Zazie Beetz’s Sophie’s offer of help), but as Arthur plummets into his abyss, there are fewer ways out and come the final stretch, the chances have passed and the damage is done. Arthur’s story is cautionary, it is one of a troubled soul seeking kindness and respect but only finding solace and acceptance in madness, anarchy and violence.
Phillips’ direction feels uncompromising, as he never ceases to bring all these issues to the screen and even when risking offence and revulsion, pushes forward. Additionally, for fans of the comics there are some loving references to DC lore hidden within, some very tiny and some act as far more overt beats that (especially in the ending sequences of characters being well truly born) forebode and binarily oppose. It really is incredible to think that this came from the same man who made The Hangover Part III.
While Lawrence Sher’s cinematography is beautiful in its depiction of savagery and desperation, and the closing scenes especially are absolutely sublime. The setting is brilliantly captured and the grit of a crime-infested and desperate Gotham is displayed in full, contrasting wonderfully with the colourful razzmatazz of the Murray Franklin TV show that plays an increasing role on this story. As Chernobyl composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s engrossing score is almost like a horror soundtrack, in its haunting quality that seems to creep up on you and it just chills the blood, complimenting the film exceptionally and nicely sitting next to a plethora of song choices that fit in perfectly.
Joaquin Phoenix allows every pore of his being to be filled with the character, in a true transformation (he lost 3 stone for the role) and you often forget you are watching an actor, especially come the incendiary final act and statement that sees Arthur well and truly taken over by the Joker. His look feels traditional, yet radical, and his mannerisms are disturbing and display a rising to the surface of simmering inner conflict. Phoenix’s laugh, crucial to the script and character, comes to fade in its frequency and in the process resemble a screeching, disturbing, death cry of the soul within and it all really lingers with you. This is an incredible actor with few equals at work and his sympathetic, troubled and violent tour de force performance is one that will, like Heath Ledger (and many other Jokers – Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill – for that matter), surely stand the test of time in movie history.
And there is some excellent support by Robert De Niro (who is clearly in on the film’s cinematic inspirations) as talk show host Murray Franklin and Deadpool 2’s Zazie Beetz as neighbour Sophie Dumond who offers an important edge to the narrative, as does American Horror Story’s Frances Conroy as Penny, Arthur’s frail mother. Although, perhaps the most startling, is Brett Cullen (The Dark Knight Rises), as a very different and wickedly timely take on Thomas Wayne, who encapsulates this (and our own) eras societal fractures.
As someone who has had some personal struggles, Joker had me transfixed and spellbound, offering a sense of dread, horror and uncomfortable catharsis in showing the extreme ugliness of mental illness and danger of social disregard, as well as a handful of unexpectedly placed bits of dark comedy amidst the tension, slow burn character study and well delivered and necessary outbursts of violence and civil uproar. One of the first shots of Arthur at work spinning an “everything must go” sign truly forbids, because come a certain point in the film and especially at the very apex of it…everything has. This is seriously staggering stuff, which will enjoy a reputation in the future as an important moment in mainstream cinema and the comic book genre and if Phoenix doesn’t get that oscar, god only knows what else it could possibly take!