Near towards the start of Joker, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) sits in a counselling session, his cigarette burning dangerously close to his fingertips.

“Is it just me,” he muses “Or is it getting crazier out there?” In a case of life imitating art, he could be referring to a multitude of controversies surrounding the movie. From extremely partisan reviews to the film, cancelled US screenings over terrorism threats and even people walking out of theatres saying it is ‘too dark’, Joker has certainly made an impact, much like our central antihero does when he don’s the Clown Prince of Crime’s sharp make up. However, like Fleck, the film at times is flawed and unstable; but bold, daring and brash at the same time. 

The year is 1981, Gotham. The city is on the brink of collapse due to unemployment, crime and poverty. Arthur Fleck works as a clown-for-hire while aspiring to pursue stand-up comedy and lives with his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy) in a shabby apartment. He dreams of appearing on Murray Franklin’s (Robert De Niro) late night talk show, wanting to make people laugh in a bid to mend his own broken soul. 

Arthur suffers from a neurological disorder that prompts outburst of laughter, regularly visiting a social services worker to obtain various medications. After a group of kids attack him in an alley a co-worker lends him a gun, sparking a series of events that will lead to his descent into the madness of the Joker. 

Joaquin Phoenix as Joker
Joaquin Phoenix as Joker C: Warner Brothers

Firstly, it is hard not to sympathise with Fleck. He is downtrodden, quiet and timid, growing accustomed to being trampled all over by society. Skulking around Gotham’s growing piles of rubbish like a DC Comics version of Gollum, he is entirely forgettable. Chances are you may of walked past an Arthur Fleck every day of your life, not realising it nor caring otherwise as he struggles up the same steep flight of steps everyday to reach his home. He suffers quietly with mental health issues that he internalises, with no one to turn to for help and no one is ready to offer it. Fleck is stooped and skinny, so much so that you could play his ribs like a xylophone.

Joker, from a visual point of view, looks stunning. Director of Photography Lawrence Sher takes the bright, garish colours of the Joker’s clown outfit and mutes them through warm sepia. It looks like a movie of the early 80’s, fitting with it’s time period. Think the graffiti ridden streets of Walter Hill’s Warriors or Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver to get an idea of director Todd Phillips’ vision. Gotham is a stinking slum, overcrowded, bustling and scruffy. This is far far away from the bright and shiny metropolis of Nolan’s Dark Knight films, with Batman using flying vehicles to navigate its skyline. 

It is underpinned by a disturbing and jarring score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, also known for her work on the HBO mini-series Chernobyl. Her cello must be played to within an inch of its life, so often does it feature. It provides a window into Fleck/Joker’s psyche, coming through at times when he is feeling down, at times that happens both physically and metaphorically. Gradually, more and more of Fleck’s back story is stripped away, providing some substance and explanation to the man beneath. 

Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and King of Comedy practically drip their influence all over Joker, like clown make up running down a cheek. Arthur Fleck is not a million miles away from a Travis Bickle or Rupert Pupkin, angry loners who believe they deserve more from the world. But Fleck is arguably more sympathetic than those two, who are both pathological narcissists. Fleck, you feel, genuinely wants to make people feel better about themselves, despite his obvious delusions. Alan Moore’s classic Batman graphic novel, The Killing Joke, is arguably the best Joker origin story going. In it, an unnamed man is driven to insanity after ‘one bad day’. For Arthur, it is many, many bad days that bring out the demons within. 

Joaquin Phoenix as Joker
Joaquin Phoenix as Joker C: Warner Brothers

Not everything lands, however. Detective Garrity (Bill Camp) and Burke (Shea Whigham) are criminally underused for actors of their ability, playing two Gotham Police Officers suspicious of Arthur after killings in the city. As is Zazie Beetz, as Sophie, a cynical single mother who lives down the hall and is a potential love interest. There is a lot of different story lines and elements for Phillips to juggle, with some balls dropped in the process as things begin to feel slightly tacked on. It would be interesting to know how much was left on the cutting room floor to maintain its two hour run time, as some holes in the story feel prominent. De Niro looks to be on auto pilot for most of the movie, doing a passable if unspectacular job at being the object of Arthur’s mad fascination. 

“I always thought my life was a tragedy. Now, I see it’s a comedy,” says Fleck in a moment of contemplation. Some of the dark humour in Joker does not land. From walking into a glass door, his comedy routine falling on its arse or sitting in his fridge when he is at breaking point, these moments involving Fleck jar with extreme violence as the homicidal maniac comes out. It feels like an ill formed decision to try and blend the two, but maybe that is because I am part of the ‘woke culture’ that Phillips has recently been complaining about. Rated 15, the violence is prominent, as Joker deals out his own form of justice in increasingly bloody measure.

As an audience, we are not sure whether to laugh or pity Arthur at certain moments of embarrassment, leading to confusion all round. It also could be seen as handling a topic of mental illness as, at best, heavy handedly. As Fleck’s condition steadily worsens, going hand in hand with his lust for hurting those who have wronged him, it perhaps justifies Jokers actions by saying it is okay to resort to violence against people if they do bad things to you. There is no right answer, as this is fiction and designed to be entertainment, but it is a dangerous message to peddle. 

Ultimately, the film is a slow burner, so much so that we only get to see the Joker in full form, if you will, in its final moments. It is an origin story with one foot in the camp of being totally original and another in the desire to retain some faith in the Batman canon, so much so that Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father who Arthur has a great deal of contact with, is far more unlikable than previous incarnations. Alfred Pennyworth and a young Bruce also come into Fleck’s sphere, with Arthur given a brief glimpse of what could have been if he were born with the silver spoon instead. 

Joaquin Phoenix as Joker
Joaquin Phoenix as Joker C: Warner Brothers

However, with a character that is so revered by legions of Batman fans, Joaquin Phoenix does not disappoint. His haunting cackle, often laboured to the point where it causes him to cough up his guts, is disturbing and fascinating in equal measure. There is little emotion on the surface at the beginning, the odd smile or flick of the eyes not betraying the madness beneath. Only when he commits his first act as the Joker does his passion come out, dancing slowly around in a subway toilet like a young Charlie Chaplin, unable to contain his glee. The makeup offers not only a literal mask, but an emotional one also. 

Phillips, when receiving the Golden Lion for Joker at the Venice Film Festival, thanked Warner Brothers and DC for trusting his idea. He should send them a bottle of champagne, chocolates and cakes as well, such is their faith in the film. This is flipping 80 years of Joker history on its head in two hours, with such audacity and skill that it stays with you as you drive home, get into bed and close your eyes to sleep. It is not perfect by any means, but gives a shot in the arm to a franchise that sorely needed it. It is perfectly understandable to see why there are so many negative reviews, but this is a film in the Joker’s image. It is divisive and unpredictable, leaving a bloody trail in its wake, a half smoked cigarette and a high pitched cackle that leaves you cold. 

Verdict: ★★★★☆