WELCOME TO TWO hours of intense, unrelenting madness in this compellingly engaging movie. Todd Phillip’s confident directing places us, mainly, in the mind of the very disturbed Arthur Fleck – the man who would become Joker- and forces us to be both voyeur and unwitting witness to a descent into madness. A skeletal Joaquin Phoenix, his body all harsh angles, is centre stage for almost the entire movie… in what must be his crowing achievement. His is as compelling a performance I’ve seen so far this year. You want to look away, but simply can’t. Phoenix’s Joker mesmerizes.
This is of course the prequel to Batman’s most evil criminal.
It’s a movie about delusion. Joker is delusional, born of a delusional mum, and a part of a body public deluded in its expectations of some sort of salvation.
From the perspective of storyline and plot, the movie tracks the path of a lonely, pathetic, put-upon weirdo (Arthur Fleck) who works as a professional clown and lives with his ageing mum (Frances Conroy) and who morphs into Joker: the un-leasher of violence and anarchy.
His is an Oedipal relationship not unlike that of Norman Bates’ in Psycho. He has dreams of becoming a professional comedian, but is handicapped by a neurological illness: a sort of laughing Tourette’s that forces involuntary cackles of hysterical laughter mainly when he’s either nervous or scared. It’s a problem that frightens people and further alienates him from them.
All the ingredients are there, festering and simmering for the explosion that’s bound to happen: a battered childhood, an incel inability to form friendships with women coupled with the wider anomie of big city isolation, repeated instances of physical abuse, with no one to offer succour and advice. All that’s needed is a gun.
For a moment, as things go downhill for him you think there may be a silver lining on the horizon when Sophie, a pretty neighbour (Zazie Beetz) falls head over heels for him. She becomes his lover, she accompanies him to his mother’s hospital bed, she comforts him.
One small problem: it’s all in his head.
And all the while, the story’s journey tracks Fleck’s psychological evolution from clown to Joker
The movie begins with Fleck applying his clown make up. He’s applying the face, the mask, the grinning expressions he needs to face his day. This mask of the happy clown is the shield he initially uses to protect his vulnerable wretched life; it’s the image of his own forced narrative of wanting to make people happy. Eventually the mask warps into the person. And Fleck becomes Joker, the demon prince of anarchy and destruction; the bringer of death not happiness.
His ally and co-conspirator in chaos is the city itself. This is a Gotham that’s falling apart: the dark, infernal subways are dirty and graffiti stained, social services have all been cut, the populace is restive and on edge. There is a building polarisation between the decadent rich and the angry poor, who are contemptuously referred to by wannabe mayor, Thomas Wayne (Bruce’s father) as “a bunch of clowns”
As Fleck descends into his own private world of anarchy and murder his relationship with the city becomes almost a symbiotic one. Gotham becomes an externalisation of his internal anguish. In a sense he IS Gotham. And as his clown face becomes his face, the angry residents of the city adopt their own clown faces, not so much to mask their identities but to identify with this, unlikely, newly risen hero. To these (deluded) citizens, theirs is the choice between the madman as existential rebel or the entitled rich (Wayne) that sneer at them.
The Gotham of the 70’s is the gestalt of today.
Or maybe, like his neighbour/lover, this may only be what he thinks or hopes is happening. We’re in a world of madness here. This is the world that the newly orphaned Bruce Wayne (parents gunned down by a clown) must confront when he matures and dons his own mask.
Bravo for DC comics. Even if their boldness in launching the first real superhero woman (Wonder Woman) floundered in the crappy Avengers wannabe follow ups, this dark, psychologically intense direction is a brave new detour in wresting superhero fluff into societal mirror.
What next? Stay tuned
JOKER. Dir./writer: Todd Phillips (War Dogs. The Hangover’s) With: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert de Niro, Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2), Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under), Brett Cullen (Narcos). Screenplay: Scott Silver (The Fighter). Cinematographer: Lawrence Sher (Godzilla: King of the Monsters). Production Design: Mark Frieberg (If Beale Street Could Talk). Composer: Hildur Guonadottir (Chernobyl, Sicario 2)