Wednesday, 2 October 2019


Rating: 5/5

There are few villains more iconic than the Joker. He occupies a place on the totem pole of pop culture bad guys somewhere around Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter, each as dastardly as the next.

The character's threads are, of course, well worn, the Joker’s status as Batman’s decades-old nemesis augmented by a slew of differing portrayals. Cesar Romero played it naughty and knavish during the campy sixties Batman TV series, while Jack Nicholson chewed scenery with wild abandon – “Never rub another man’s rhubard!” – for Tim Burton, and a massive cheque, in the 1989 adaptation.

More recently, Jared Leto offered up a particularly grotesque display in David Ayer’s risible Suicide Squad and Christopher Nolan, famously, captured lightning in a bottle when he cast the late Heath Ledger as his primary antagonist in The Dark Knight. The latter’s Oscar-winning performance was truly something to behold, a relentless demonstration of unhinged nihilism that would make even the average Brexiter reach for the smelling salts.

What made Ledger so darkly unnerving was his anonymity: His reasons, roots and identity remained undiscovered. He was a blank page, an unknowable tribune of chaos, more than content to watch us all burn in the flames of our own absurdities. 

Thus, it is in this earthier vein, rather than any of the more arch incarnations, that Joaquin Phoenix delivers his take on the Clown Prince of Crime in Todd Phillips’s Joker, a searingly powerful origin tale that will captivate audiences and reboot their expectations of the humble comic book movie. 

Phoenix occupies ground far beyond the familiar motifs of cartoonish tailoring and pantomime wickedness. He is defined, instead, by depths and motives. His Arthur Fleck is an outsider, a fringe presence replete with insecurities and deep-rooted issues that trap him inside a vicious, constricting circle and drive him in the direction of the villainy to come. This is a remarkable depiction of a life lived both on the edges of society and within the creaking systems that underpin it. 

A ghost-like, put-upon and frequently victimised husk of a human (witness his learned acquiescence to an early beating), Fleck is a product of cultural neglect and several strains of medication, a man unacquainted with even the smallest of breaks. Nor is he a match for his environment: Gotham City, 1981, a fetid, roiling hellscape of gutted public services and hopeless denizens, all subject to the whims of a caste of gilded and largely unseen overlords – a Tory midnight fantasy given form.

Fleck toils away in a grotty alley of clowns for hire. He spins ‘Closing Down’ signs outside failed stores and amuses sick kids with his generic act, punctuated by sessions with an aloof social worker and the routine of tending to an ailing shut-in mother (the always delicate Frances Conroy). He aspires to a career in stand-up comedy but is prone to sustained delusions – one of which centres on acerbic late-night TV comic Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro in dentures and pancake makeup) – and struggles with a hideous neurological condition that sees him burst out in fits of laughter at inappropriate moments, instantly repelling the already unsympathetic citizens around him. Phoenix’s work, overall, is extraordinary, though he exhibits a truly impactful mix of embarrassment and despair when besieged by this wretched malady.

There is only so far a man may be pushed, however, and in the wake of one especially violent incident, Fleck is set on a path from which there is no escape. His existence, already delicate, is shaken horribly before he consents to the descent and surrenders to the power of fate.

The slow-burn thrills are palpable throughout and Phillips, removed from the bro-comedy populism of the Hangover trilogy and Old School, steers them all with masterful confidence. He crafts a rich yarn, drawing upon Lawrence Sher's grimy cinematography – all mouldy greens and mottled browns – that paints the faded, down-at-heel milieu in which Fleck ekes out his subsistence. 

Perhaps most fascinating is Joker's central conceit. It represents a fable of the little people, those populating the background of a fictional landscape usually reserved for its celebrated caped hero. In focusing on a random nobody, even one who will go on to occupy a special place in this world, Phillips enlivens Gotham's bleakest corners; this is the story behind the face in the crowd. It is a novel spin, elegantly executed, on the very concept of the expanded cinematic universe. 

And what, then, of the Dark Knight himself? He may not loom large, such is Phillips's desire to build the film on fresh foundations, but the director is not ignorant of his picture's heritage. The Wayne family is prominently featured, Thomas (Brett Cullen), the patriarch, presenting as a patronising asshole plutocrat sporting a faintly Trumpian disdain for poor people.

Indeed, it is in the context of the wider source material that Phillips pulls off a smooth second-half twist and ratchets up the tension. The stately pace of the narrative suddenly quickens and hurtles towards a conclusion that feels infinitely more recognisable. Fleck finally unleashes his inner anarchist, fuelling pandemonium for its own sake and luxuriating in the destruction of those not grasping the joke. There is even time to build in a nod to seminal events from the Batman mythos; nascent links between rivals are forged in blood and murder. 

A strong supporting cast, including De Niro and Zazie Beetz (who appears alongside a cameoing Brian Tyree Henry, her Atlanta co-star), undergirds the drama. Yet, at its centre, Phoenix comes alive. 

Armed with the Joker's spindly staccato movements, and his unmistakeable wardrobe, Fleck can, at last, bask in the adoration he craves and the turmoil he conjures. Even at this point, beneath the strut and the leering war paint, the pain that drips from his mocking, insolent, sing-song intonation is real and, perhaps, wholly necessary. You will feel every bit of it.