This latest offering from Hangover trilogy director Todd Philips doesn’t half get the mind going. Having earned rapturous applause from the Venice International crowd, Joker has since met critique for its crude depiction of mental health suffering and inciting of violence. Perhaps such attacks take the situation too seriously – tonal murk aside, Joker is a superhero film – but there is no smoke without fire. As a work of cinema, meanwhile, the film does impress. Philips’ direction is smart and his production handsome. Yet, the real trump card here is an immersed central turn by Joaquin Phoenix. And that’s no joke.
The iconic centrality of the Joker as Batman’s nemesis par excellence stretches way back. Certainly, it long pre-dates the Oscar winning interpretation of Heath Ledger in 2008 bandstand The Dark Knight. Before Ledger, Jack Nicholson camped up the part for an oddly endearing performance in 1989, with Mark Hamill and Cesar Romero also having lent themselves to his villainy. Phoenix’s Joker lies somewhere in the mix, simultaneously drawing on his forebears and carving out a unique presentation. This Joker, only latterly refereed to as such, is a vulnerable soul, a weakness of heart tempered by narcissism and a delusional perspective on the world around him. He’s underweight, isolated and suffers from an array of mental health conditions of indistinct identity. There’s obvious psychosis there, post traumatic stress and perhaps even personality disorder. Most significantly, Arthur Fleck suffers the injustice of an uncontrollable laugh.
When Phoenix produces the high pitched laughter of a man on the edge, a shudder crosses the heart. Automatic recourse to sympathy is hard to retain when faced with such sinister expression. It doesn’t help, of course, that Fleck’s condition so remarkably juxtaposes his evidently off-kilter sense of humour. A rent-a-clown by profession, Fleck dreams of a career in stand up comedy but has precious little conception of what real audiences find funny. His idol is talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro, playing obvious homage to his counterpart role in Scorsese’s King of Comedy), and ideas all fall into the pages of a battered notebook carried everywhere. There, they share space with pasted in pornography and internal musings on his own distress. ‘You take seven pills,’ says his social worker early on, ‘they must be doing something.’
As it plays out, Phillips’ script – co-written with The Fighter’s Scott Silver – has ideation as much toward societal critique as merely proffering forth the origins of Batman’s premier foe. Indeed, Joker offers a depiction of Gotham City more bleakly depraved even than that conjured by Christopher Nolan. It is not just the criminal offences that stink in this Gotham either. Phillips opens to news reports of a city-wide garbage crisis, with refuse sacks stacking up at every turn. It’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, a subtle metaphor but does prove effectively visual. Assaults on the monied elite and right wing disregard for social care prove less profound than intended when pared with a proletariatian rising and its hard not to wish for more balanced depictions of mental health suffering in modern cinema, even accepting the heightened environment.
Aesthetically speaking, Joker enjoys a decidedly seventies vibe. There’s a brilliant haze to Lawrence Sher’s autumnal cinematography, often captured through partially obstructed long shot lenses so as to instil inherent feelings of empathetic and emotional othering. A focus on browns, greens and yellows, meanwhile, do much to heighten a sickly air. Through all, Phoenix holds a striking presence, finding perfect union between excellent make up and performative commitment. Phillips adds to this an almost frenetically mobile approach to shooting and retains energy well. A word too for Hildur Guðnadóttir’s densely atmospheric score. Accompanied by affecting renditions of Send in the Clowns and That’s Life, it’s haunting work.
The final result is complex on consideration, albeit rather scantily intellectual. This is dark and moody material for the multiplex crowd but admirable in a sea of Marvel populism. It will certainly be interesting to see where DC go next in their cinematic expansion. Finally, they might be on to something. A Batman-orientated sequel? Neither impossible nor unwarranted.