Joker review: Joaquin Phoenix is dangerously good in a Fight Club for our time

Dir: Todd Phillips. Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Glenn Fleshler, Marc Maron. Cert 15, 118 mins.

A part of me found Todd Phillips’s radical rethinking of the Batman villain Joker thrillingly uncompromising and hair-raisingly timely. Another thinks it should be locked in a strongbox then dropped in the ocean and never released.

Make no mistake, this is a film that is going to stir up trouble – in the consciences of everyone who watches it, and almost certainly in the outside world as well.

The dizzy, punch-drunk atmosphere after the film’s first screening at the Venice Film Festival mirrored the mood when Fight Club premiered here 20 years earlier, and critics tried to work out if the film was a sly critique of meathead fascism or a feature-length recruiting advert for it. To be clear, I don’t believe for a second that Phillips and his star, Joaquin Phoenix, actually think that their version of the classic Batman bad guy is in fact a hero to be glorified and emulated. But I worry that someone out there will.

Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, an unstable, narcissistic 30-something loner who lives with his elderly mother Penny (Frances Conroy) in a version of Gotham City that is to all intents and purposes Manhattan in the early 1980s. Even Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), billionaire father of Bruce, is reimagined as a puffed-up, Trump-like plutocrat.

He was there all along: Joker
He was there all along: Joker CREDIT: WARNER BROS

Arthur works as a party clown at a shabby downtown talent agency, but dreams of making it as a stand-up comedian, and collects his material in a “joke diary” in a barely legible scrawl, interspersed with explicit magazine clippings. At times of stress, he is seized by an uncontrollable urge to laugh: comic-book catchphrase recast as psychosomatic tic.

“Is it just me, or are things getting crazier out there?” Arthur asks his therapist after one such involuntary bout of hysteria, and it’s true that the world outside looks like an early Martin Scorsese film. Two specifically, in fact: Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, which aren’t touchstones for Joker so much as its bedrock. (In a smarter-than-you’d-think self-referential turn, Robert De Niro plays Arthur’s favourite talk show host, Murray Franklin, in a pair of Jerry Lewis-style Aviator glasses.)

Yet if Arthur is essentially written as Travis Bickle crossed with Rupert Pupkin, Phoenix uses his pipe-cleaner physique (the actor reportedly lost more than three stone for the role) to draw out the character’s inherent clownishness. His improvised soft-shoe-shuffle dance routines are carried off with Chaplin-esque elegance, while his ludicrous, flat-footed sprint recalls a Keystone Cops chase.

Not that you’ll be laughing much yourself. Superhero blockbuster this is not: a playful fireman’s-pole-based homage to the old Batman television series is one of a very few lighthearted moments in an otherwise oppressively downbeat and reality-grounded urban thriller in the vintage Warner Bros mode.

Besides Scorsese, Phillips’s film draws heavily from the real-life tale of Bernhard Goetz – New York’s so-called “Subway Vigilante” who in 1984 shot four black teenagers on public transport on the grounds that he thought he was about to be mugged, and become a dubious folk hero in some quarters for supposedly taking a stand against the city’s slide into lawlessness.

After a fateful confrontation with some obnoxious Wall Street traders, Arthur effectively becomes Gotham’s own Goetz, and his clown make-up, reproduced on newspaper front pages in a terrifying eyewitness sketch, becomes a symbol of underclass resistance. Suddenly, this invisible pavement-crack dweller feels like he’s been seen – and the clown masks that slowly begin to appear at protests are all the encouragement he needs.

Note that this all takes place long before Batman arrives on the scene, though if you thought Joker would miss the opportunity to re-dramatise a certain done-to-death formative moment of his in a dark alley behind a cinema, you thought wrong.

Robert De Niro
Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin CREDIT: WARNER BROS

Just as Heath Ledger’s take on the character in 2008’s The Dark Knight was rooted in the 9/11-shaken times – as a source of terror he was unpredictable and inexplicable, emerging from goodness-knows-where – it seems apt that the Joker of 2019 should be the guy who was there all along.

For anyone with an eye on the news, Arthur is a horribly familiar case study: quiet, bullied, overlooked, loves his mum, keeps himself to himself, then writes his manifesto and takes his grievances murderously viral. And artistic intentions aside, there is something inescapably and chillingly glamorous in watching Arthur’s Joker persona emerge, like a poison-striped parasite devouring its host.

I admit I was glued to Phoenix, loved wallowing in the neon murk, and left the screen in semi-dazed awe of Phillips – who was previously best known as the director of the Hangover comedies – for having the nerve to take what is still essentially a studio film spun off from superhero franchise as far as he has.

Should he have? No question about it: cinema should not be squeamish about reflecting the world as it is. But even so…eek.

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