You’d have thought after a few decades that included 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead, World War Z, Resident Evil and every other movie or TV show about zombies, there’d be nothing new to bring to the genre. If you were a gambler the odds were very long there’d ever be anything fresh to come – until we got movies like Colin, The Rezort, Warm Bodies, [Rec] , Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead and The Cured.
In the same way, it seems like every new superhero or comic book movie only reminds me of how I was sick of them even before the 2000s had ended (despite the shot in the arm Iron Man gave the genre).
Still, when they announced a movie about the Joker’s origin story I thought it sounded like an interesting idea. When Joaquin Phoenix was cast my interest went sky high. After the first trailer it went stratospheric. I’m still not the least bit interested in comic books or superheroes, but Todd Phillips’ look at Gotham City and chameleon Phoenix’s back catalogue as such a talented performer made me more excited about it than any movie this year.
So what a rare pleasure it was Joker met and overtook those expectations with such aplomb. Before the credits had even started rolling I knew it was the best movie of 2019.
Phoenix is Arthur Fleck, a clown for hire and wannabe stand-up comic who lives a thankless, poverty-stricken life in early 1980s Gotham looking after his aged mother Penny (Frances Conroy). He’s dealing with a mental illness that prompts him to burst into uncontrollable fits of laughter when met with social anxiety or emotional alienation, but it’s the deeper, systemic sickness in his wiring (which he just thinks is ambition) that’s really disturbing.
He’s unhealthily obsessed with talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, in a nice parallel with The King of Comedy), fantasising about getting onto the show, being adored by millions and even finding an erstwhile father figure in the older man, a quality missing from his own sad life.
But Arthur’s lot seems to be to suffer. After he’s jumped and beaten senseless by a group of thugs in an alley, he takes to carrying a small revolver given to him by a scummy co-worker for self defence, but when it falls out of his pocket in view of everybody on a subsequent gig entertaining kids in a hospital, Arthur loses his job.
It’s the latest in a series of blows to the tenuous control he has over his demons. We’ve also seen him in session with a social worker who seems to have little effect but to give Arthur the chance to reveal how depressed and angry he is and how there’s a tinderbox and lit match simmering just below the surface. But when the funding to the counselling program is cut, he’ll also be left without the meds that keep his conditions under control.
It’s a recipe for disaster, and when Arthur is taunted by three obnoxious investment bankers on the subway one night he snaps, shooting them all dead. But instead of descending further into the mire, the killings give him catharsis and stillness for what feels like the first time in his life.
It also prompts a groundswell social movement against the one percent, and Arthur is bemused to find his anonymous clown visage as its figurehead. The only fly in the ointment is the two GCPD detectives who start sniffing around asking questions, the last thing Arthur wants now he’s truly finding himself and his bliss.
The relationship he’s struck up with his single mother neighbour (Zazie Beets) has also been offering him a connection to the world and reality, but there are more bumps on the road. His mother’s conviction that Gotham billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is a great man and will take care of them because she once worked for him seems increasingly deluded. And when Arthur intercepts a letter from Penny to Wayne claiming that Arthur himself is actually the industrialist’s illegitimate child, it sends Arthur into another tailspin.
He confronts Wayne at a fancy benefit, the latter with no idea what he’s talking about, saying that Penny had delusions that the pair were in love that had no basis in reality. Fleck goes to Arkham Asylum and sees the records that prove he was not only adopted by his mother but that both he and she both suffered horrific abuse at the hands of her boyfriend.
It seems to be the final nail in the coffin of Arthur’s chances to get back on the straight and narrow, the secret behind the the relationship with his pretty neighbour coming into stark reality as a consequence and leaving him apparently feeling he has nothing to lose.
Until that moment you’ve felt pangs of understanding for Arthur, a mentally ill man abandoned by the vagaries of a downtrodden, careless economy. Shooting the rich creeps and even what he does to his own mother for a lifetime of lies elicits a strange sort of sympathy for Fleck’s actions, but because of the brilliant handling of the tone by Phillips and the performance by Phoenix, you’re never sure when the moment comes that you realise Arthur is actually a murdering psychopath you’re horrified you ever sympathised with.
When the lies about (and in) his life are peeled back we learn Arthur is in fact far more damaged than anyone realises, least of all Arthur himself. When Murray Franklin’s people get in touch and ask Fleck on the show it feels like destiny to him, vindication of everything he’s hoped to become and which he can finally embrace. Of course, the rest of us know it’s a disaster waiting to happen – he’s actually been invited onto Franklin’s show because he’s a laughing stock thanks to a failed comedy club routine that’s gone viral.
Watching the moment he fully welcomes the darkness and madness into his soul and revels in it is as terrifying as it is beautiful. He commits another casual and brutal murder, paints on the iconic make-up we’ve all seen from the trailer and sets off towards Franklin’s studio. Once there he’ll make his biggest, most visible and most shocking mark on the society that’s ridiculed, forgotten and mistreated him, unwittingly sparking off the political and social events that lead to everything else we know about the Batman and Gotham City mythology.
It’s far too easy for a movie to get either the story or the onscreen execution of it right – both are seldom this good in concert. Every element here, from the dialogue and emotional beats in the script to the designs and effects on screen are transcendent. There isn’t a single minute you won’t be gripped with some aspect of the story or what Phoenix brings to the role.
There’s just enough from the universe of the comic not to distract from the realism or the drama and remind you that it’s all based an on essentially silly story for kids. Even with the uninvited visit to Wayne Manor where we meet a young boy and a protective butler or the killing of the Waynes outside the Monarch theatre, Gotham City feels vibrantly, terrifyingly real.
Chris Nolan gave us the best real world-based depiction of Gotham in The Dark Knight and here Phillips builds on the aesthetic beautifully, making it a character itself. The city is caked with grime, full of opportunistic thugs, barely running on crumbling and ugly infrastructure and with the streets filthy thanks to an ongoing garbage strike.
With both the very grounded setting and Phoenix’s searing performance of mental illness, this looks and feels a million miles from a comic book movie, all of it backed with a bombastic, horror movie-inflected score by composer Hildur Guðnadóttir.
If you want to look for subtext, Joker obliges you in spades. It’s an almost perfect metaphor for America in 2019, a user-pays capitalist utopia where the mentally ill and socially disenfranchised are shunted between crippled social service providers or abandoned altogether.
In fact it might not be a subtext but the ultimate point of the movie – Fleck’s speech when he finally has his soapbox on Murray Franklin’s show seems like a damning indictment on any society that could turn out a madman as dangerous as the one he’s become.
It’s also, as Fleck says in the trailer-worthy moment when he suggests it’s getting ‘crazier out there’, a clarion call for decency and a warning about the toxic effects of increasing civic unkindness and shrill political discourse on real lives.
But the star of the show could be the subject of an entire review in itself. Phoenix is sublime. Like Johnny Depp did with Jack Sparrow or Harrison Ford did with Indiana Jones, Phoenix lifts the character so far off the page he’d be just as fascinating in a one man show with a totally different story.
First of all he’s starved himself to the point of looking sick, bones protruding out from under his skin at ugly and alarming angles, contorting himself into impossible, painful-looking positions when expressing his sense of release in a series of disturbing slow dance scenes.
His long, greasy hair and deadened eyes were hinted at in early promotional photos Phillips released, but they barely scratch the surface. You believe every breath of a man fighting against and ultimately giving in to the descent into madness and evil, reminding you unconsciously of what Stephen King had in mind for Jack Torrance.
Terms like ‘character arc’ are bandied around in movie promotion and discussion far too readily, but you can almost feel the same frisson of terror and release as Fleck when he shoots the three rich scumbags. It’s in the subtlety with which Phoenix gradually rises upright, light gradually returning to his eyes over the course of the movie, finally comfortable in his own deranged skin.
Once upon a time we’d never have imagined any actor could win an Oscar for portraying a comic book character, but even without the precedent of Heath Ledger, Phoenix shows them all what acting really looks like.
The film also comes along at an interesting time when comments by Martin Scorsese have big names popping up on both sides of the fence to attack or defend comic book movies and whether they’re really cinema.
What, then, is Joker? Of course it’s a comic book movie, but it also happens to be the best designed and executed film with one of the best scripts and certainly the best performances of the year. Does that render it a theme park ride, like Scorsese attested?
It’s interesting to debate the semantics, but in the end it hardly matters how you categorise it. Joker is what the art form was created for, and for once the billion-dollar haul is utterly deserved.
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