Arthur Fleck is a clown for hire and aspiring comedian plagued with uncontrollable fits of laughter. Living in the rapidly declining Gotham City, a stand in for 1970s New York or 2000s Detroit, against a backdrop of acceptable street violence and a total breakdown of social order, he is pitted up against a daily tirade of abuse while happily dressed in his clown outfit holding Golf Sale placards. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that Joker details Fleck’s slow decline into the City’s greatest face-painted felon. As his stand-up hopes start to decline, he finds a potential ray of light on TV but once he’s publicly ridiculed on Murray Franklin’s top Gotham talk show, a transformation begins which takes him down a much darker route.
What director Todd Phillips needed to be careful about here was not to make the Joker a source of pity, this is the origin story of one of the biggest criminal masterminds in the comic multiverse after all. And this is exactly what makes Joker such a work of genius and explains why the violence needs to be so absolute. The audience needs to feel their empathy with the character wain as the acts of violence increase, so by the end our protagonist has become the antagonist. It would have been easy to have us all cheering as Joker slays the naysayers around him, it’s a much more difficult task to make us distance ourselves from him as his transformation transpires. This is brilliantly achieved by Phillips’ and Silver’s writing and Phoenix’s stunning performance. There is astonishing moment when he drops a loaded gun while entertaining children dressed as a clown which acts as the potential tipping point and is wonderfully executed.
De Niro’s casting too is a fabulous nod to The King of Comedy, in which he swaps the downtrodden unhinged comedian for the successful talk show host whose success he once craved; De Niro’s Murray Franklin stepping in for in Jerry Lewis’ Jerry Langford and Phoenix into Rupert Pubkin’s boots. It’s a lovely circular piece of casting which gives De Niro an increasingly rare chance to shine.
This is Phoenix at his best; commanding a role which feels like the end game for his performance as the unbalanced Freddie Quell in 2012’s The Master. Hopefully the DC tie-in won’t put the non-superhero audience off, this is a film which could have easily lived outside of any existing universe, and indeed set up its own franchise in its wake. It will be interesting to see if the superhero link puts off the academy come Oscar time because it’s difficult to see anyone getting close to Phoenix as lead actor at the very least.
Joker is a shocking, beautiful, haunting, stunningly addictive piece of character work that eclipses anything else released this year. Hopefully this will fuel Phillip’s vision of low budget character-based DC tie-in’s he’s been touting to the studio for years. Don’t worry if you don’t do Batman stuff, this is the real deal.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro
Director: Todd Phillips
Review by Colin Lomas