Joker lands in cinemas this week – as heavy with hype as Batman’s toolbelt with gadgets. Not that gadgets and superheroism play a big part in this origin story, which shows the backstory of Batman’s arch-nemesis. Instead, following in the footsteps of the violent adaptations Logan and Deadpool, Joker is a bracingly bleak, gorgeously shot departure from the conventions of the comic book spin-off movie, anchored (if not dominated) by a magnetic central performance from Joaquin Phoenix.
The film unfolds in a 1970s-feel Gotham City that’s politically and socially tearing itself apart. (The first evidence of unrest is mounds of uncollected rubbish rotting on the city streets.) Director and cinematographer pairing Todd Phillipps and Lawrence Sher produce image after image of urban decay. Plying his trade against this warts-and-all backdrop is Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a struggling clown who aspires to stand-up comedy.
Fleck’s talent for comedy is, it’s fair to say, a little on the dark side. And why wouldn’t it be? Fleck is a recently released mental facility patient and is on a battery of medications. From his filthy apartment he pines for a neighbour and dotes on his ailing mother. He is beaten down, time after time, both figuratively and literally, by bullies, co-workers and by the state. Pushed to the edge, he discovers he has a flair for violence, and in it a reason for existing. Phoenix communicates Fleck’s mental illness and vulnerability through a range of verbal and bodily tics, including a horrible, humourless, involuntary laugh. Phoenix dissolves himself into the role with Day-Lewis levels of intensity, and it’s brilliant.
Does the film live up to its pre-release reputation as inflammatory incel-bait? Sort of. While the film is definitely shocking, and while the title character’s transformation from loner with mental health-related trauma to supervillain is mesmerising, Joker’s attempts at subversive, ‘We live in a society…’-style commentary aren’t really up to much, with a few shots of masked rioters standing in for anything insightful. And really, despite all the controversy, Joker feels a little insubstantial, lacking the gravitas of The Dark Knight. It lacks, as well, the chilling social alienation of Taxi Driver – a film that it apes pretty shamelessly in parts.
Despite these shortcomings, the film goes for broke on Phoenix and his barnstormer of a performance, and on this level alone it has the last laugh. Kevin Murray
Joker is out on wide release.