Joker is a glorious indulgence of contortion and depravity.
Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a failed stand-up and a man generally down on his luck. Todd Phillips’ reinterpretation of the iconic DC villain has been met with much furore, some critics branding it “irresponsible”, “racist” and “pornographic” amongst a variety of other terms. It should be acknowledged, however, that this film is not mere glorification of a serial murderer. Instead, it stands as an explication of how the individual alienated from society can descend into violence in response to an abhorrent cocktail of unfortunate events.
Phoenix is able to encapsulate the depressed outsider supremely as he takes a nosedive into insanity. This particular Joker evokes empathy early on; when Fleck is a simple victim of the harsh world that surrounds him, it is quite sad to watch. As his problems start to build up, Joker demonstrates how ennui, mental illness and socio-economic conditions can snowball into a state of total anarchy.
The film is riddled with devastation. Fleck relays how he “believes in nothing” as everything he once cared about is taken away from him, leaving the character in a dehumanised state. Because of all his horrible experiences, we nearly side with Fleck – we want him to be saved, initially. Unlike Heath Ledger’s take in The Dark Knight, ours is a pitying stance. Once he truly becomes Joker, Phoenix’s movements become overzealousness. There are perhaps too many frames, too many minutes, dedicated to his eccentric style of dancing.
Aesthetically, Joker is rooted in the cinema of the ’80s. Grey streets are dotted with muted neon. We are catapulted into the gritty seediness of Gotham City, each nook and cranny. Joker is immersed in realism rather than CGI, though it may be missing the mark in trying to specify the significance of the character’s villainy. Although it stands as a challenging film in itself, one does question if this is a necessity within the wider Batman canon – does it actually matter as to how and why the Joker became a villain, or should it be that he just is the bad guy?
The style of the film is in keeping with the instability of its central character, as we are left unsure of what is happening in the narrative and what is not. There is a constant awareness of Fleck creating a fantasy external to his own reality, which is portrayed in quite a strangely poetic manner. The ending provides a sense of satisfaction as it presents the Joker in duality, at once on top of the world but simultaneously at a spectacular new low.
Joker is certainly one to watch if you’re interested in the sphere of the Batman series and enjoy the realism of The Dark Knight. Its grisly bleakness is a sure-fire catalyst for the rainy Autumn season: prepare for a whole load of Phoenix-inspired clowns strutting around come Halloween.
Joker (2019), directed by Todd Phillips, is distributed in the UK by Warner Bros., certificate 15.