by Toby Woollaston
What a luxury to have Joaquin Phoenix, an actor of such immense scope, to hang your film on. Especially when that film is about one of the most iconic (and dare I say it, celebrated) fictional villains in history. His turn as the Clown Prince of Crime will most likely draw comparisons to those who have gone before (Ledger, Nicholson, et al). But it needn’t. This film is a different beast and Phoenix occupies quite a different period in the Joker story.
Set within the bowels of Gotham City (stylised as an all-but-in-name early eighties New York City), Joker introduces Arthur Fleck; a heavily medicated clown-for-hire with a neurological compulsive laughing disorder. Living with his mother (Frances Conroy), with whom he spends evenings watching the Late Night show with Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), Arthur cuts a desperately lonely figure. Bullied, alienated, and fast becoming bitter towards the people around him, Arthur succumbs to his darker leanings.
It’s easy to forget that this is yet another film set within the DC universe. Instead of the usual bombastic bluster, Joker gives us an introspective character study that belies its comic-book origins. Dark, gritty and full of rage, this deep-dive into Fleck’s psychological descent is undeniably an eye-opener. But, as absorbing as it is, the pained misunderstood anti-hero shtick does have a very familiar ring to it, with Fleck’s character clearly cribbing from roles such as Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle (De Niro providing yet further connective tissue). Even Phoenix’s role in last year’s You Were Never Really Here—as Joe, another sociopathic loner on whom we were encouraged to cast our sympathies—could easily be considered a “Fleck practice run”. Certainly, the similarities are there.
Joker’s director/co-writer Todd Phillips’ (The Hangover trilogy) pathos-filled characterisation of Fleck is considerably unsettling—a dark vision that walks a tenuous tightrope between empathy towards Fleck’s brokenness and revulsion at the Joker’s psychopathic tendencies. It’s a wobbly moral compass that occasionally leaves you unsure of who you should root for. Despite this, Joker still elevates itself from the pack, thanks in main to Phoenix’s remarkably embodied performance.