Joker Review

Joaquin Phoenix as Joker

Smile, though your heart is aching.

Arthur Fleck sure is doing his best to live by Nat King Cole’s words in Todd Phillips bold new comic book origin story Joker, but it’s clear to see that he’s close to breaking.

We first meet Arthur as he literally tries to put a smile on his face.

Staring into the mirror while his heavily made up clown face stares back at him, Fleck uses his fingers to turn his grimace into a smile… before letting go and accepting his natural state.

You see, Arthur’s a clown for hire who dreams of one day making the world laugh as a stand-up comedian.

The only problem is, he’s not very good… maybe that’s the joke.

Not that this stops Arthur from trying, nor the rotten people of Gotham City from attacking him in the street for little more than daring to be a little different from them.

For daring to believe in something a little different than them.

Beset by mental health issues that cause him to laugh uncontrollably, usually at the most inopportune of moments, Fleck is heavily medicated and just as heavily entrenched in therapy.

Living with his mother and abandoned by his father, Arthur is unsurprisingly something of a loner, seemingly beaten down by the bum hand life’s dealt him.

But like most jokers, our clown prince is getting ready to play things a little wild.

Having received rave reviews and won multiple awards at Venice and Toronto film festivals, Joker isn’t a superhero movie in any sense of what we’ve come to know and expect from the genre.

In fact, it’s not really a comic book film at all – director Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver have merely taken a few character names and locations from DC and used these as a blank canvas to create something entirely unexpected.

The result has more in common with classic New York films like The French Connection or Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver than anything from the DC universe; in fact, with its colour palette and cinematography, Joker looks and feels like it was lifted straight out of the seventies.

It’s a brave move, but one that has already paid off handsomely – I’d be genuinely surprised if Joker doesn’t end up reinventing and redefining the entire comic book genre.

And a lot of that is down to the incredible performance and transformation of Joaquin Phoenix.

From the absurd theatricality of his Joker running about in oversized clown shoes or ecstatically dancing in the street, to the hysterical cackling that comes out whenever he gets nervous and everything in between – Phoenix manages to blur the lines between reality and fiction, making you forget he’s simply an actor playing a part… he’ll rightly sweep the Best Actor category at this year’s awards season.

Fair warning though, if you thought Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were dark, they have nothing on Joker.

Previous Hollywood incarnations of Gotham’s clown prince have glorified this character, none more so than Heath Ledger’s hyper stylised Joker whose intelligence was effectively a superpower.

That’s not Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker – Arthur Fleck doesn’t have all the answers… he barely has any at all.

Abandoned by the people and institutions who were supposed to protect him, Fleck is a man who has been pushed to the edge of sanity and beyond by a system that doesn’t care who falls through the cracks.

And that’s the joke – Fleck isn’t the villain, far from it, he’s merely a symptom of a rotten and corrupt society that places the greater greed ahead of the greater good.

As Gotham society begins to break down, it’s billionaire Thomas Wayne who emerges as the real villain of the piece – a cruel and violent man who’s lust for power and money knows no bounds.

Any of this starting to sound familiar?

We live in a society where the rich get richer and the poor get demonised by wealthy, right-wing sociopaths who act as though the world belongs to them.

What Phillips has done in Joker is simply hold up a mirror to the inequities of our own civilisations, and in Phoenix he found his perfect, clown-shaped muse.

Not everything about Joker works, particularly the ending, but it’s a brilliant piece of filmmaking with performances and a score that will keep you on edge until its climactic scenes.

As for the real world problems we face created by our very own Thomas Waynes, you may find that life is still worthwhile – if you just smile.

Just try not to take a leaf out of Arthur Fleck’s book.

Jonathan Campbell

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October 2019
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