Joker arrives in the UK amidst a deluge of controversy. To some minds, it’s a work of genius. To others, it’s a dangerous and divisive polemic that invites troubled souls to indulge in their darkest, most dangerous fantasies. To my mind, the film belongs fully in the former slot, but it would be naïve to suggest that it’s not a searing indictment of American society, and that it doesn’t feel suspiciously like a call to arms. Though the names of a couple of films on a cinema marquee place the action in 1981, make no mistake: this is all about the America of today – and it’s not a pretty picture. The rich corporations rule this Gotham while the poor, the sick and the dispossessed are marginalised and brushed under the carpet.
Joaquin Phoenix puts in an extraordinary performance in the central role. He’s Arthur Fleck, a scrawny, malnourished loser, living with his ageing mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), in a dilapidated apartment in Gotham City. Arthur dreams of being a successful comedian, but lacks the ability to understand jokes or even deliver the routines he writes, since he suffers from a condition that makes him laugh involuntarily at random intervals. He earns a crust as a street-clown and children’s entertainer but, even in these roles, he’s beset by problems, picked on by street gangs and openly mocked by his fellow clowns. Meanwhile, he fantasises hopelessly about his neighbour, Sophie (Zazie Beets), and fills the empty hours watching his chat show idol, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), on TV. But the cruelty he experiences on an almost daily basis is building something uncontrollable deep within him… something that will eventually inspire others to follow him.
Director and co-writer Todd Philips, previously best known for lame buddy comedy The Hangover, has really struck a powerful chord here. His reimagining of the Joker’s origin story is bleak but compelling stuff and, despite Phoenix’s dazzling starburst at the film’s core, the supporting characters are all well drawn and the hellish cityscapes in which the story unfolds are strikingly shot. Throw in a brooding musical score by Hildur Guönadóttir and you have a movie that grips like a vice from start to finish. The influences are evident and clearly not accidental. Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy are both openly referenced, and eagle-eyed film fans will also spot a brief homage to Sidney Lumet’s Network. It’s lovely also to see De Niro in a serious role for the first time in what seems like ages.
It’s ironic to note that this film goes straight to the top of my favourite DC movies, particularly as it doesn’t feature a superhero of any description – unless you count a glimpse of the infant Bruce Wayne, who will of course grow up to be Joker’s main adversary – and, doubly ironic, when you consider that my previous favourite was The Dark Knight, which also featured a memorable Joker in Heath Ledger. I guess the simple truth is that the Joker has overshadowed Batman in most of the films they’ve featured in together; he’s just a more interesting character.
Joker is a must-see: a brilliant evocation of an American city at flashpoint. The central message may trouble you – indeed, it really should trouble you – but this is giant steps ahead of most of the superhero stuff that’s currently out there.