Joaquin Pheonix is astonishing as a man down on his luck (and battling mental illness) before descending into rebirth as the psychotic figure known as the Joker. Jennifer McShane says it’s the first comic book movie in years that manages to achieve true realism – it has set the bar in which all must now follow
There’s been a lot of talk about Joker. A lot of strongly-worded protests. Angry columns about how it will incite violence: “[It looks like a] love letter to kids who become mass shooters and how many awards it will win is why I’m scared of men,” one viral tweet said. The US military has warned troops about potential violence at screenings (not unfounded given what’s happened in the past, granted).
But the thing is, never for one second does the movie attempt to glorify the life of Arthur Fleck – or his subsequent violent crimes. It does the opposite, shows you how grim and difficult his life truly is. It starts slowly; this bleak – yet oddly beautiful – portrayal of Gotham city in 1981, overrun by waste and rats. Arthur is struggling in his day job as a clown and even more so as he tries to be a successful standup comedian.
And he tries. He tries to smile, to take care of his mother, to be happy. He gets kicked and beaten by strangers. Laughed at when the jokes aren’t funny. Ignored when he tries to get help for his mental illness. It’s one knockback after another.
He feels invisible. He longs for the most basic of wants. To be seen. Heard. For human connection. He has a neurological condition which sees him prone to fits of sudden and random bouts of maniacal laughter. But he has never been happy.
And when you see this all stack up on the screen; a man, so in need of help, forgotten by society, his crossing the line and finally snapping seems the most logical thing that could have happened.
Yes, he slowly becomes unhinged, deranged and violent. We can never excuse the violence but you can see how it came to be. Even as you watch his worst moments on screen, the viewer can’t help but feel something for him. He was let down by society but yet he can’t engage with it at all. He stands on the outside, looking on, but not knowing how to stop his otherness.
He is a man struggling with mental illness, the violence engulfs him but we soon find out why. He isn’t an anti-hero. He’s just a depressed individual who soon turns chilling underneath the makeup.
Moments are disturbing to watch, but it’s been built up so carefully, you almost expect them – even when they shock. And they don’t exist to glorify violent actions. And from the ashes where the rich get richer and the poorer get poorer, he begins to rise, but at a dark cost.
At the very beginning, we see Arthur apply his clown makeup, trying to force his face into a grin, while a single tear rolls down his smudged cheek. No CGI, no gang ready to cause havoc. Just a sad man, trying (unsuccessfully) to be a clown. And so, director Todd Philips sets a sombre tone for the film to follow.
He so desperately wants to connect, but he can’t. He’s too far gone; filled with a hate only too many crushed dreams can cause
But against the grey backdrop of the city, Phoenix lights up in colourful makeup and costumes. He is alarmingly frail yet he moves like he’s walking on water; gliding down the stairway in a scene highlight towards the end. From tears to laughter to actions that are truly frightening in the blink of an eye – every movement is seamless. It is the actor’s finest role to date – you can’t take your eyes off him.
The odes to the late, great Heath Ledger are all there (as are they when it comes to the caped crusader himself) but this is a one man show.
Putting on a happy face is harder than you might think but you’ll want to see this one nevertheless.
It’s a hell of a show.
Main photograph: @gajeel_rdfox
Joker is in Irish cinemas on October 4th