Since opening to an eight-minute standing ovation at the Venice film festival in August, where it scooped the top prize, Todd Phillips’s origins picture about the birth of Batman’s cackling nemesis has become the focus of a moral backlash, with critics using words such as “toxic”, “cynical” and “irresponsible” to describe its relentlessly embittered (and allegedly glorified) tone.
By Mark Kermode
That such terms should be applied to a populist studio picture from the director of the Hangover movies is perhaps unsurprising. Phillips has previously struck gold by appealing to his audience’s basest urges with the kind of nastily nihilistic gross-out comedies that he recently complained have been killed by “woke culture”.
Joker, which seems to draw in equal measure on Martin Scorsese’s scabrous media satire The King of Comedy and Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, has a similarly dyspeptic worldview, full of characters drunk on a destructive cocktail of enraged self-pity and self-gratification, the latter indulged with an obliterating disregard for consequences. The difference is, this time no one’s laughing.
Like Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn in The Dark Knight, Joker has an ace card in the form of Joaquin Phoenix’s mesmerisingly physical portrayal of a man who would be king.
Reduced to a skeletal state (think Christian Bale in The Machinist, but worse) by a diet of nicotine and pain, Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is a tragicomic nightmare, a beleaguered, sign-twirling clown who suffers from a medical condition that turns his internal screams into cackling laughter. Bullied, abused and increasingly enraged, Arthur lives with his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), in Gotham, a city befouled by garbage strikes and overrun by mutant rats. He dreams of becoming a standup comic but has no idea what other people find “funny” – a lethal combination.
As Gotham rots, Arthur seethes, licking his wounds while pasting pornographic pictures into his journal-cum-joke-book. “Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?” he asks his unappreciated healthcare worker (fat-cat cuts are killing care-in-the-community programmes), sounding more like the illegitimate spawn of Travis Bickle every day. Meanwhile, Robert De Niro’s smarmy talkshow host Murray Franklin flashes his wall-toothed grin on TV, reminding us all what The King of Comedy’sRupert Pupkin might have become after stealing Jerry Langford’s crown while a nation watched.
The ghost of Pupkin hangs like a putrid spectre over Joker, from Arthur’s fantastical dreams of stardom to the narrative’s queasy themes of the media making heroes of villains in uncertain times. When wealthy Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) calls Gotham’s impoverished masses “clowns”, his words echo around endless TV screens, providing a V for Vendetta-style mask to rioting protesters carrying “Kill the Rich” placards. Meanwhile, Hildur Guðnadóttir’s brilliantly brooding score seems to throb up from the pavements of these mean streets, full of ominous low strings and prowling bass growls – doom-laden voices prophesying war.
Through this desolate landscape dances Phoenix’s lonely man, treading a path from victimisation to vengeance previously trodden by everyone from Charles Bronson in Death Wish to Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Yet while Jack Nicholson’s weirdly lovable Joker may have described himself as “the world’s first fully functioning homicidal artist” in Tim Burton’s Batman, Phoenix’s Arthur is simply a pathological narcissist desperate to get his own back on the world.
Like Pupkin, he craves unearned adoration and gets the same validating buzz from violence that fired Michael Rooker’s titular monster in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Whether stalking his single-mom neighbour Sophie (Zazie Beetz), stabbing a former colleague in the neck or prancing obscenely to the imagined sounds of Gary Glitter’s Rock & Roll Part 2 (subtlety has never been part of Phillips’s palette), Arthur is hardly a sympathetic figure. Rather, he is pitiful – a key distinction.
Visually, Joker has a studiedly retro feel, from the Saul Bass-designed 1972 Warner logo that opens the picture to the long lenses used by cinematographer Lawrence Sher, repeatedly focusing on faces partially obscured by fuzzy foreground figures, as if the film was peering over someone’s shoulder, spying on its subject. There are sly nods to key 1970s texts such as Sidney Lumet’s Network, alongside movie theatre marquees advertising such early-80s releases as Blow Out and Zorro, the Gay Blade. We also get an extended sequence pointedly played out against a revival screening of Chaplin’s 1936 classic Modern Times. As I said, subtlety is not Phillips’s strong point.
What he does have is an eye for a well-chosen location, an ear for a provocative line of dialogue and a finger on the pulse of very marketable, confrontational (if also “cynical”) entertainment. Add to this an incendiary central performance by Phoenix and Joker looks set to have the last laugh.
**** 4/5 stars
First published at the Guardian/Observer – Sunday 6 October 2019. See; https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/oct/06/joker-review-joaquin-phoenix-ace-turn