Just as the song goes, “Clowns to the left of me / Jokers to the right” – it seems somewhat fitting for what film fanatics must be feeling as we are truly in the spooky season of October. Most of us have probably seen the highly anticipated IT Chapter Two by now, and it appears our good friend Pennywise is not the only classic cinematic figure known for his clownish yet ghoulish guise.
Everybody knows and loves Batman’s greatest nemesis, from his debut appearance in the first ever Batman comic in 1940 to the recent portrayals of the character in the DC universe films (most notably the late Heath Ledger’s depiction in 2008’s The Dark Knight). However, this time around, we don’t just see a deranged psychopath we love to root against, but rather a detailed character study; this iconic villain is humanised with antiheroic qualities and we can’t help but sympathise with him even though we probably shouldn’t.
The first thing worth noting about this film is that if you are going into the theatre expecting to see an action packed, stunt-heavy film with special effects and all the typical tropes of a superhero movie, you might want to reserve that energy for the upcoming Birds of Prey with Margot Robbie (who will be reprising her role as Harley Quinn). Joker, on the other hand, is being branded as a psychological thriller; we see the story of how Arthur Fleck becomes The Joker, with a lot of emphasis on the character’s mental disposition, rather than a constant stream of one action sequence after the other. I am very happy to see such a switch-up in this kind of narrative after waves of the same superhero movie being released over-and-over again.
The premise of this film follows struggling stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck who lives with a disorder that causes him to laugh uncontrollably in a maniacal fashion at infrequent times. He lives in a small apartment in Gotham City with his mother (Francis Conroy) as he aspires to make it big in order to share his gift of bringing joy and laughter to world. This is consistently depicted throughout the film by his desire to be featured on a talk show hosted by his hero Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) as he so yearns to be noticed for his passion for comedy, despite multiple failed attempts.
Following tough acts such as Ledger with this popularised character (and some fewer tough acts such as Jared Leto in Suicide Squad), Joaquin Phoenix had some pretty big shoes to fill when taking on this role. He literally had to wear large clown shoes when Arthur made his living dressing as a clown to make ends meet during the film’s exposition. Phoenix’s approach was not trying to emulate The Joker as the completely psychotic, ruthlessly evil rival of Batman that we’re all too familiar with, but rather a man clinging on to the optimism of finally making it after being stepped on a few too many times.
The macabre cackling is something the audience will have to endure throughout and it may provide a disconnect between our protagonist and certain viewers. The pain in Phoenix’s eyes when the laughter lingers on creates an uncomfortable air for both his character and the people sharing the scene with him. This unease is fully intended and succeeded in giving me heart palpitations upon my viewing. I was rooting for this comic to get out a single sentence during a sequence with a stand-up set. He gets through it – but barely. You want to see him succeed because his own optimism is so genuine, but the lengths he goes to to find this success comes through the discovery of his ability to commit coldblooded murder. We see our anti-hero is sure of himself. He’s in power and cannot be stopped. We are simultaneously rooting for and against this protagonist as he descends into a life of crime by taking down those who wronged him in any shape or form.
Supporting characters played De Niro, Conroy and Brett Cullen (Thomas Wayne) are essentially nothing more than supporting characters. We are only concerned with our protagonist as he progresses to the stage within the latter third when he takes ownership of a term (clown) that holds a derogatory meaning and creates a persona around it as he descends into his unlawful escapades.
The film just about scratches the surface on its inclusion of political overtones. The director, Todd Philips, had no intentions of making overt political statements in this work. That being said, it would be interesting to see more about how the accusations of Mayor Thomas Wayne being a fascist can be explored to give more of an explanation as to why Arthur is motivated to pursue a villainous lifestyle.
Phoenix’s commitment to his methodological slant of the character is not simply what makes it work, but the acting paired with gorgeous cinematography and a terrifying soundscape plays just as significant a role. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher shoots Phoenix in Martin Scorsese style from an array of angles throughout and it perfectly captures his wanting to be happy, but how he inevitably succumbs to the internal conflict eating him up from the inside. The music is also very significant in this character development; we hear low instrumentation from the offset like that of a horror film to indicate the tension that’s about to explode like a ticking time bomb. Todd Phillip’s showcase of this character progression in an upmost stylistic way is just as worthy of praise as his star’s performance.
The thing DC fans may be disappointed by is the lack of source material used when creating the story arc of our beloved Joker. Because of this, I urge the most dedicated of Batman fans to switch off their ‘geek goggles’ and to sit back and enjoy a fresh take on one of the most infamous antagonists in cinema history and see the messed-up metropolitan landscape from his own, twisted perspective.
Director: Todd Phillips
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy
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