***This review includes spoilers of Joker. You have been warned***
You might have expectations of how creepy Joaquin Phoenix is as Joker – turn those up to eleven.
The Todd Phillips-directed take on the Batman antagonist backstory is more than you could ever imagine and, honestly, Joaquin deserves all the awards.
Cancel the 2020 Oscars, just give them all to this guy.
With the buzz about this movie raging ever since it premiered to rapturous review at Venice Film Festival, the hype was high but when it comes to Phoenix’s portrayal of failed comedian Arthur Fleck, he’s everything you want in a troubled and incredibly flawed villain.
Phoenix stars as the titular character, virtually living in solitary squalor with his invalid mother (played by Frances Conroy), working as a clown-for-hire as he tries to get his stand-up comedy career on the tracks, and finding the only enjoyment in life from watching late-night talk show Murray Franklin (a smarmy Robert De Niro).
As he takes humiliating beating after humiliating beating, Fleck starts to slowly unravel as we see him try to form some sense of the world around him and why it treats him with such disdain.
What results is two hours of intense and uncomfortable viewing – that you cannot take your eyes off.
Gotham City in the 80s was no place to live and Joker paints a portrait of a tortured city perfectly, cut with irreverence to try and humanise our murderous villain (cue Fleck jiving down grimy steps to Gary Glitter’s Rock And Roll Part 2 after committing another heinous crime, you try not tapping your toes).
It pays little mind to the DC comics backstory, creating a whole new canon on which to devour. However one particular nod to Bruce Wayne AKA Batman’s origin story was a nice touch – if not incredibly heartbreaking at the same time.
Losing 52lbs for the role, Phoenix put his body on the line for this character and that is ever so clear with shots of protruding shoulder blades and sinewy limbs that linger a little too long, his worn white underwear hanging off his thin body.
What perhaps separates Phoenix’s portrayal to that of previously lauded Jokers, including that of Oscar-winning Heath Ledger, is the pure focus on Arthur’s unhinged mental state.
Where Ledger’s character in The Dark Knight may have merely been ‘kooky’ – violently deranged, yes, however clinically depressed and prone to hanging out in fridges, perhaps not – Phillips’ take is a confronting view of how those with mental illness are treated in society. When juxtaposed by the wealthy 1% of Gotham City, it makes for uncomfortable, but necessary, viewing that should be starting conversations about the little emphasis currently placed on mental health services
We see him in and out of failing counselling sessions, his social worker growing more frustrated with his inability to truthfully describe his ‘negative thoughts’ before his sessions are cut altogether and he’s on his own. His perfectly maniacal laugh – attributed to his ‘condition’ – signposts every awkward moment as his cackles substitute tears.
It’s the slow mental unravelling, though, after Fleck fights back against subway bullies, figuring the world ‘owes’ him for his years of ridicule and abuse, that the movie finds its real groove.
Fleck’s to and fro between melancholy and rage is a punch to the gut, with the intensity failing to wane. Not that you’ll notice the time at all with Phoenix’s performance holding you for its entirety.
Joker is a villain, first and foremost, but it’s hard to ignore an incel ideology of chaotic revolution, and no matter how you gloss over it there are moments where Joker is very much glorified and celebrated.
While this has been denied by Phillips, in saying he hasn’t created a ‘glorified’ villain, there are definite moments you feel that’s not the case. From hard-done-by Gotham residents revolting after Fleck’s violent subway stand, to men dressed as clowns literally cheering on Joker after hauling him from a police car.
Moments following sinister acts are designed to be light-hearted and entertaining, despite the carnage, blood and anguish that preluded.
Still, as our protagonist’s state of mind – or whatever is left of it – twirls around the fireman’s pole the audience, too, will question whether Fleck’s reality is merely a strange day dream.
There might not be sympathy for the devil, but there is definitely empathy.
Joker is in cinemas Friday.
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