Director: Todd Phillips

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen

Words – Natalie Mills

How do you review Joker in the midst of such divided opinion?
I’ll be honest; I still don’t know what to think about it.

From director Todd Phillips, who previously brought us The Hangover, who has spoken about feeling unable to do comedy films anymore because of ‘woke culture’, I wasn’t expecting funny high jinks from the clown, but there is something so purposefully GRIM about this film.
Rats rummage in Gotham bins, notebooks are filled with spiky ‘he’s going mad’ scribbles, and Phoenix cries at himself in the mirror.

Joker is a tragic retelling of a character with many incarnations, but we are still fascinated by. I love The Joker as much as the next fan, but this depiction feels almost uncomfortably real.
Arthur Fleck is a wretched human being. He works as a not-so-funny clown, gets beaten up by cruel residents, and takes a chemists’ worth of medication for a non-specified mental illness. I liked the idea that Joker’s laugh is a condition he can’t control – it’s probably the most realistic portrayal of the character we’re ever going to get.

We see a downward spiral of events, which take him from unstable outcast to the murderer we’re all familiar with. Everything is told from his viewpoint; although you get the idea he is a somewhat unreliable narrator. Building the wall between him and society is his equally troubled mother, a trio of rich thugs in suits, Robert De Niro as his idol (for a while), and a certain Thomas Wayne.

Joaquin Phoenix is, undeniably, fantastic in the titular role. Arthur Fleck is the last person who should have their mental health support cut, and in the beginning, you’re rooting for him. Inevitably, you see him snap in the biggest non-spoiler of all time. Which is why, for me, Joker doesn’t hold up to the likes of Taxi Driver. There’s the shadow of Batman hanging over everything.

The film does serious drama so well that adding Batman into the mix feels out of place. Not that comics can’t do gritty (it’s high time I watched The Dark Knight again), but I’m not sure this works. There is something so sad and damaged about Phoenix’s portrayal that the notion of him eventually becoming a criminal mastermind feels out-of-place.
You spend time getting to know this complex and tragic character, in a climate where mental health cuts really are a problem, only to feel like someone is jumping in, winking at you and going, “LOOK, it’s Bruce Wayne!”.

I spent a while wondering whether the alt-right and incel comparisons are justified. Joker isn’t either – he is stuck in a genuinely unfair situation and deserves better treatment. He’s not interested in politics, just getting help and not being beaten up by assholes. But it’s tough watching his angry, self-absorbed rants against a system that failed him. He is not spouting alt-right incel rhetoric, but he is still justifying killing people.
He feels pleasure, of sorts, in giving himself over to being a villain. It’s his way out of being miserable. He has “nothing to lose” after all.

The cinematography is lush, Phoenix’s performance is brilliant, but something about Joker feels a bit cynical. It’s a bleak, emotionally-draining wilderness of a film. A mix of Scorsese-esque psychodrama (was it all in his head?) and cameos from the DC franchise.

Joker does a good job of fleshing out the backstory of an iconic fictional character, while still leaving enough to draw your own conclusions. I’m hoping to pick up more depth on a second watch.
Whether or not it’s your thing, Joker is worth watching, if only as encouragement to ask the sad clown down the hall if he’s okay.