Edition 31 October 2019, by Cathy Leung
Technically Joker is an origins movie, related to the well-established stories from DC Comics, with the Joker being the long-standing arch nemesis of the Batman character. But in reality, be warned: this is not a superhero movie. We find the protagonist, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), living in a squalid apartment in a Gotham City that is essentially early 80s New York. He seems like an honest man just trying to make his living as a clown, and pursue his dream of becoming a stand-up comedian. However by the end of the film, Fleck has renamed himself ‘Joker’ and has inspired carnage and anarchy in Gotham City.
How that happened is a pretty melancholy journey, set to a mournful cello score, and one pathetic blow after another for poor Fleck. His eventual descent into violence is well-structured but don’t expect any dramatic action chases or glossy cityscapes, it’s pure grime and misery. There’s a chase scene at the beginning but it’s the stuff of despair, not thrills. A tragic but opaque backstory involving Fleck’s mother is also revealed, which you might find moving. Joker might also surprise you with its remarkable cinematography; there’s real artistry in the framing and colours of this film which I admire more than anything. The reviews so far have been divided but on one thing most people agree; the performance given by Phoenix is outstanding. Who am I to disagree? The comic book character has been played by many actors but Phoenix has brought out a humanity that other portrayals have not. Scenes where Fleck dances, (manically to Gary Glitter and trancelike in a bathroom) are particularly striking in the way they express Fleck’s evolving state of mind.
Joker includes several, shallow gestures to the historic Batman franchise (the Arkham asylum is featured, a young Bruce Wayne appears and we see another version of his parents’ murder, for example) but it’s more a homage to the Martin Scorsese films, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, with Robert de Niro’s cameo making the link obvious. Like those films, Joker can be seen as a social commentary on an unjust, alienating world. So there are no heroes in Joker, but Fleck’s Joker alter-ego is not really a villain either. By the end he’s still a victim, unable to control the mob he’s stirred up, and himself still trapped in Gotham’s ugly mess.