So here’s the most controversial film of the year. When Joker premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August, it immediately attracted both five-star reviews and contemptuous put-downs. Time magazine denounced the movie’s “aggressive idiocy” and warned that the hero “could easily be adopted as the patron saint of incels”. Joker went on to win Venice’s top prize, the Golden Lion, nonetheless.
Joker is unlike any other comic book film, deliberately hijacking the genre for its own purposes. There has never been a settled origins story for The Joker, a character introduced in the first Batman story in 1940 and originally intended to be bumped off in the second instalment. If there’s any accepted version, it’s that he fell in a vat of chemical waste and was driven nuts by the disfigurement. So the field was wide open for director and scriptwriter Todd Phillips, and his collaborator Scott Silver, to approach it as they wished, while ostensibly working within the DC Comics world. The standalone film they’ve made has nothing to do with superheroes. It’s a lurid pastiche and amalgamation of Martin Scorsese’s pulpy psychopath classics, Taxi Driver of 1976 and The King of Comedy of 1982, its star a toxic combination of Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin.
JOKER (2019) STARRING JOAQUIN PHOENIX – IN PICTURES
Phillips, previously best known for the Hangover trilogy, which pushed being funny into new extremes of pain and damage, hasn’t made this Joker funny at all. This is high impact movie-making, with colours flaring in its ill-lit world, its action sequences full of dramatically framed shots from odd angles, closely modelled on cartoon images, cut together fast so they’re held only as long as you would look at them in a comic, all powered along by a thudding cello-centred score by Hildur Guðnadóttir.
It’s 1981 and we’re in scuzzy Gotham City, or as it might be, Scorsese’s New York. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally disturbed loner, given to boutsof manic humourless cackling, handing out a laminated card to people who are annoyed that reads “Forgive my Laughter: I have a Condition”. He lives in a miserable apartment with his cracked mother Penny (Frances Conroy) who calls him “Happy” and has told him he was put in the world to spread joy. Arthur sometimes works as a clown in children’s hospitals, but he’s trying to develop a career as a stand-up comic. “Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?” asks his mother.
Previously hospitalised, poor Arthur is on seven different meds. “I just don’t want to feel so bad any more,” he tells his social worker. He almost flirts with a pretty neighbour (Zazie Beetz) and dreams of receiving recognition from the host of his favourite TV chatshow, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, pointedly).
But in reality Arthur has a truly terrible time and, crazy though he might be, it is not his fault. Advertising a closing down sale in clown costume, he is savagely beaten up by some teenagers. Given a gun to protect himself by a fellow clown, he haplessly drops it on the floor while performing in a children’s ward and gets the sack. Going sadly home, Arthur is viciously attacked again, this time by three drunken yuppies on the subway, derisively singing Send in the Clowns — and he pulls that gun, in a scene clearly alluding to the Bernhard Goetz “subway vigilante” shootings.
To his surprise, Arthur finds he has sparked a popular revolt against the rich, with protesters wearing clown masks. As he tells his social worker, “until a while ago, it was like nobody ever saw me — even I didn’t know if I existed”. Now Arthur is changing, all the more so when he uncovers the truth about his mother’s claims that the plutocrat running for Mayor of Gotham, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is “family”. Then Murray Franklin invites the unfunny comedian on to his show to make fun of him…
Phoenix’s performance here is a tour de force. Dropping 52lbs for the role, he contorts his body into the weirdest shapes, looking as though all his bones had been broken and wrongly re-set. He moves bizarrely, clown-running, dancing and posing madly half-nude at home, but then taking this performance out onto the streets. And of course while submerging himself wholly in the creation of this psychopath, as he does into all his roles, he remains the desirable film star, Joaquin Phoenix — this contradiction perhaps underlying Phoenix’s annoyance and walkout when an interviewer asked him the obvious question, whether the film might not “perversely end up inspiring exactly the kind of people it’s about”. The film does indeed pretty systematically endorse Arthur’s resentments, cogently expressed even in extremity. He clearly announces: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that doesn’t give a f*? I’ll tell you what you get — you get what you fking deserve!”
Perhaps because it would simply never occur to me to emulate a character in a film, when I first saw this film in Venice its incitements didn’t worry me. Indeed it seemed obvious you’d have to be crazy already to identify with this Joker. But that’s precisely the problem and it’s an outcome this film actively invites. Joker is surprising, impressive and entertaining — but perhaps in the end it is itself little less than hateful? The aftertaste sours.