Director: Todd Phillips
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert DeNiro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Wingham, Bill Camp, Glenn Fleshler, Leigh Gill
Written by: Todd Phillips and Scott Silver
Running Time: 122 mins
Release date: 4th October 2019
If the first half of the 21st Century will be defined as far as cinema is concerned, it will be the rise of the comic book adaptation. Holding top position is Marvel with a string of enormous, often crowd-pleasing hits, leaving their comic book rival, DC, often behind. From that stable comes Joker, an origins film of how Batman’s most notorious villains came to be. This has already been an award-winner at Venice, heralded five-star reviews and caused controversy due to its violence. This is, without a doubt, the darkest comic book movie ever to hit the screens that might shock viewers looking for another pantomime style blockbuster. This film owes more to Death Wish than to Deadpool.
It’s the early 80s, and Gotham City is a mess. Strikes have caused garbage to pile up in the streets; the rich are getting richer while the poor are struggling, and the people are on the edge of exploding. Arthur Fleck is a troubled man who laughs uncontrollably at the most inappropriate moments, who lives in a fantasy world with his mother and who dreams of becoming a stand-up comic. By day, he dresses as a clown to promote shops. When he is attacked, his outlook becomes bleaker than it is. His health service is closing down, losing his job and having his comedy ridiculed by late-night talk show host, Murray Franklin. Arthur Fleck is being pushed too far.
Starting with the old 70s Warner Bros logo, this film has its feet planted in late 70s cinema. In fact, and I’m not the first to say this, this could have been a Martin Scorsese movie from that period, as it seems to owe a debt to Taxi Driver and, moreover, The King of Comedy.
This is a slow burner. We are given plenty of time to explore the world in which Arthur lives. Like his outlook, this is bleak, dark and uncomfortable. His mother, who he dotes, dreams that local millionaire, Thomas Wayne, who she used to work for, will come and save them both. He dreams of making it on the comedy circuit and maybe one day, landing a spot on Murray Franklin’s late-night talk show. The reality is this is a man who no one understands, who scares people with his hyena-style laugh that rips through you like a biting cold wind. He is not a likeable man by any means, but yet you carry a strange sympathy for him.
After a long first half, in which we get into the psyche of Fleck, the boiling point comes, and the birth of a monster appears. As I said at the beginning, this looks more like Death Wish, the Charles Bronson revenge thriller, with touches of Taxi Driver, the loner with a severe mental health issue, obsessed with making a difference in a world out of control. Moreover, this could be the sequel to King of Comedy. A lone man is wanting to bring happiness to the world but finding himself increasingly pushed aside, longing for a shot at stardom but finding his idol wants nothing more than to ridicule him.
When the violence comes, it is shocking and alarming, but the whole film’s tone is that of darkness and rampant brutality. Director Todd Phillips, more renowned for The Hangover movies, has delivered a piece of brutal cinema not seen in a comic book movie before. Sure, the Dark Knight films were dark, but this goes to an even darker place.
If there is one part of the film that sat uncomfortably for me, it’s the inclusion of a Gary Glitter track in one of the pivotal scenes. This is a misstep that didn’t need to happen. It has caused a public outcry in an otherwise near perfect thriller.
The performances are all very good, with Robert De Niro as Franklin, giving his best performance in years and playing the character that Jerry Lewis played in King of Comedy. This could be what happened to De Niro’s Rupert Pumpkin after that film.
Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck is magnificent. A full-blooded physical performance that is skin and bone, contorting his body with horrific effect. Heath Ledger won an Oscar for his performance as the Joker. Many regarded him as the personification of the character. That has all changed. Phoenix is the Joker, and his performance will be hard to beat.
Joker is a tough watch. A gritty, downbeat affair that is unlike anything you’ve seen before in a comic book movie. If you are expecting bright coloured costumes and Ka-Pow! fight scenes, then look elsewhere. This is not that kind of movie. If you are looking for something with more depth and a monstrous, towering performance, then look this way.