Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives a mundane life. Crushed between his life as a street clown and a carer to his invalid mother, there’s nothing much to smile about. Socially awkward and struggling with mental health issues, he tries to put on a happy face. However, when a fellow clown offers him a gun ‘for protection’, it quickly becomes the key to a recognition he so desperately craves.
... Comic book heroes come with baggage and in director Todd Philipp's anti-heroic 'Joker' there's a lot to unpack.
Comic book heroes come with baggage and in director Todd Philipp’s anti-heroic ‘Joker’ there’s a lot to unpack. Expectations like doubts swarm around every comic adaptation and yet his ‘Joker’ seems to have escaped these.
Emerging into the daylight vacated by Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson and a decidedly-tepid Jared Leto, the character of Joker has seen as many good days as bad. So, on this basis, Joaquin Phoenix and Todd Phillips had a license to chill and from their very first frame – and their ‘Joker’ is definitely no clown. From its first loosely tossed TV soundbite (“Is it me or is it getting crazier out there?”) a dozen different cinematic references hang over their version.
Introduced as a withdrawn, intense shadow in the lives of others, Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur as a loner wanting to be liked. Afflicted by mental illness and a Tourettes-like laugh that bursts out of his mouth when it serves him the least, it’s a piece of punctuation that nobody’s sentence asked for.
Finding solace and genuine connection by caring for his invalid mother (Frances Conroy), they communicate through their shared love of TV, and in particular, late-night show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Climbing the tall steps out of his miserable life, Arthur wants so much to be exorcised of the daily distrust he receives and bathe in the same acceptance that Murray does. However, bony and bruised and sporting a Sméagol-like physique, Arthur’s crumpled receipt of a body is hardly a draw for the ladies. That said, when the twin catalysts of a dangerous gift and a playful suggestion are put to him, a different man emerges…
To put ‘Joker’ into context, it is a movie with four main characters; Arthur, his mother, Murray and the city – and it’s the city that has the loudest lines. Whilst Phoenix’s exhausted toy-clown laugh hints at what’s to come, it’s his relationship to the city that beats down hardest on him. Painting Gotham as a thin cypher for 1970’s New York, the trash piles up, medical services are taken away and any notion of a lifeline for Arthur is cut away.
Left fantasising barechested in his apartment with the gun, Arthur manifests into a Scorcese-like voyeur with intent. As in ‘Taxi Driver‘, faced with the scum outside and the purging potential he feels within, his Travis Bickle is a phosphorescent time-bomb wanting to go off.
As ‘Joker’s’ yellow and green palette continually pulls at his mood, Todd Philipp’s ballet turns Arthur into a darker swan than when we first met him. Now off his medication, his laughter only seems a Lenny Bruce punchline away from shocking the world.
As mentioned earlier, the key to enjoying this re-imagining is how much you are prepared to let go of the past. Similar to Scorcese’s ‘The King of Comedy‘, the red line running through ‘Joker’s’ veins is repressed anger. With a descent that was always guaranteed, the shape and manner of its arc are its remaining mysteries. In echoing Matthieu Kassovitz’s ‘La Haine‘, “this is a story of a man who fell”.
When complete and seen from inside its climatic passenger window, Todd Phillips’s ‘Joker’ ultimately feels like a silent provocation, whereas Ledger’s was a mad dog that twisted its head in the breeze.
Knock. Knock. -You lookin’ at me? Because in Joaquin Phoneix’s ‘Joker’, there is no other actor here.1