Joker is a character study of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). A man who lives with his mother, suffers from a disability that makes him laugh involuntarily and who idolises late night television presenter Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro).
This is an exceptionally good film that has two huge caveats that I feel I need to come to terms with fully to appreciate it on its own terms. Let’s talk about what makes it so good first though.
The key to success here is unequivocally down to a powerhouse performance from Joaquin Phoenix. Clearly having lost weight for the role and putting every sinew of his body and mind into the role he gives a performance that you will find it impossible to take your eyes from. You know when Arthur is feeling out of control by his physical movements and the opening moments where he is staring at his expression in the mirror and using his fingers to force a smile are telling. Add to that his peculiar dancing and running (with clown shoes) and he gives as much a physical performance as a silent film star.
Alongside Phoenix though there are a couple more powerful performances from old and new stars. DeNiro has not been this good for a long time as the late night talk show host Fleck idolises. It is a hugely nice touch when we see him in one scene not in his talk show persona and we see the real him albeit briefly. Zazie Beetz, probably best known for Deadpool 2 also gives a fantastically understated performance as the neighbour down the hall who Fleck obsesses over. There is one crucial scene towards the end of the film where she really underlines what her relationship with Arthur really means and it is expertly done.
Elsewhere the film looks beautiful. Shot in New York, Jersey and Newark by Lawrence Sher (long time collaborator with director Todd Phillips) it really captures the essence of a Gotham City that is in a downward spiral. This is one of the key components to the story itself, as the city is in the midst of a garbage collection strike and high unemployment. The result of which is heightened tensions amongst the people of the city and those who run it.
I also think that Joker will stand up to multiple viewings and thoughts on what is the reality of what we are being presented with as the unreliable narrator storytelling device is a huge factor here. After all, Arthur is not a well man.
The film starts as far away from a comic book adaptation as it can. It is much more reminiscent of 1970’s auteur films. But as the threads of unrest come together it draws together as the genesis of the Joker and Gotham City in the DC universe. A perfect stand alone tale of the Clown Prince of Crime.
So what are my caveats? Well my first and biggest issue is that the film is hugely derivative of other works and it seems to me makes a poor statement of the current film industry. Those films that it would be worth you looking at are as follows. Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert DeNiro. The first is the tale of a loner who wants to clean the streets of the scum that infects them and features a powerhouse performance from DeNiro as a man unable to relate to those around him. The latter is essentially the template for Joker. DeNiro plays a lonely man who aspires to be a comedian and who idolises a talk show host. It seems very likely that director Todd Phillips has knowingly cast DeNiro as the talk show host in Joker in a nod to its debt to this film. Other films include You Were Never Really Here featuring Joaquin Phoenix giving a power house performance as a loner who has suicidal thoughts and is unable to relate to the world around him and The Machinist featuring Christian Bale in a performance where he lost weight and plays a mentally ill man.
All four of the above films mentioned are outstanding. The first two were made in the late 70’s and early 80’s and were not unusual for their time to look at challenging subject matter. The latter two were released in 2004 and 2017 to small cinema releases and are little known. Joker is essentially an amalgamation of these films and the performances of DeNiro, Bale and Phoenix himself. Thanks however to Joker’s connection to the comic book film which is currently flying high however it has a wide release and a huge advertising strategy to draw people in. If its script removed the reference to Gotham and the Joker would that be the case?
Either way, I urge you to seek out these other films just to appreciate what has inspired this work.
My second and final caveat is the manner in which Joker fails to really point out that this is an unwell man taking morally wrong actions. There are many articles about the possibility that susceptible young men will consider it a call to arms for the way that they are treated inconsiderately by society. The other films I have already mentioned were smart enough to ensure that morally there were characters who introduced checks and balances. Joker seems to miss that ambiguity.
Otherwise it is a sparkling achievement. I hope DC and Warner Brothers are wise enough to leave it as a stand alone film.