Comedy is tragedy. And vice versa. At least it is for Arthur Fleck, adrift in an uncaring society. As the yuppie generation turbocharges into a new future, the flotsam and jetsam of Gotham City are left to sink or swim. Beset with mental health problems, Fleck seeks recognition as a comedian. But the slings and arrows of his own experience is poor material. Struggling for perspective, supporting his ailing mother by working as a part-time clown, Fleck is raging against the machine.
Batman began. The Dark Knight rose. And now the Joker has his own backstory. But this is no franchise-filler. Miles away from a comic book film, it’s rooted in the issues of today - mental health, social isolation, economic inequality, street protests. With a tortured performance from indie actor Joaquin Phoenix, it’s superbly crafted. And manages to dovetail perfectly with Burton’s Batman (1989), with Nolan’s Dark Knight (2008).
Like bad comedy, it can be difficult to watch. So too its bolts of brutality (certificate 15). But Phoenix’s Joker is a multi-layered human being, not an out-of-the-box monster. The camera opens on Fleck’s contorted face, choking on a guttural noise that’s neither a laugh nor a cry, a hybrid of both. In social situations, the strangulated noise is inappropriate, embarrassing; he hands out a card explaining his ‘condition’.
But he doesn’t get chance to explain when three socialite blokes hit on a girl in a tube train. Distracting them with clown-faced laugh, Fleck becomes their target. “Send in the clowns” taunts one. What happens next gives birth to the Joker. And sets Gotham’s tinder-box society alight.
“You don’t listen” says Fleck to his social worker. “All I have is negative thoughts.” Sweetly caring for his mother, he’s bemused by her obsessive letters to the local rich man and would-be politician Thomas Wayne. Even his fondness for comedian Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro)’s talk show is besmirched when he mocks Fleck’s misfire gags, giving him the ‘joker’ soubriquet.
But Todd Phillip’s direction also gets you in the gut. Fleck’s dreams of normality with a down-the-hall girl is brilliantly played out, with a sucker-punch pay-off. The un-strangulation of the Joker’s confused emotion into a deliberate laugh at an unjust world, is a clever expression of Fleck’s transition from loner to stone-cold killer. A cello and electro score by Hildur Gudnadottir perfectly parallels Fleck’s transformation.
Joker conjures up other films. Early on it’s Chaplin, the down-and-out little guy, literally lost in the machine as Modern Times plays in a movie theatre; or as Charlie’s sweetly-sad song ‘Smile (though your heart is breaking’ suffuses Fleck’s imagination. Echoes too of Nicolas Winding Refn’s psychotic avenger in Drive. And Taxi Driver, our unstable vigilante finding meaning in his own violence.
And it is violent – sporadically. Each time, it’s another brick in the wall of Fleck’s inhuman persona. It’s a beguiling experience: we mutate too from sympathy to revulsion as the anti-hero becomes an anti-Christ. A neat touch of directorial legerdemain. Yet for all the darkness, Joker is actually a remarkably hopeful and affirming movie: look out for your neighbour, riches aren’t everything, don’t live for number one. Bizarre, then, that some have accused it of legitimising violence.
Phoenix deserves an Oscar. It’s a wholly different take from Heath Ledger’s 2008 ‘best supporting’ performance in the same role. But if you’re after a comic book trip, this isn’t it. Phillips (The Hangover I and II) takes great pains to loop it back to Burton’s Batman. An alleyway demise, a snatched string of pearls scattering in the rain. Visually referencing Ledger’s scary-faced villain from the Dark Knight. Really, though, it’s a real-world psychological thriller. It almost begs a sequel, the fully-fleshed Joker meeting his nemesis, appearing here as a boy. But as a stand-alone movie, it’s a towering achievement.