Joker is a tragic/comic origin story like you’ve never seen before

Joaquin Phoenix and writer/director Todd Phillips deserve all the tremendous acclaim for their origin story of Batman’s nemesis, JOKER.

JOKER – the origin story of Batman’s nemesis – is a triumph for writer/director Todd Phillips and actor Joaquin Phoenix. They deserve all the acclaim that has come their way since the movie premiered at this year’s Venice Film Festival in September and then astounded everyone by taking the prestigious ‘Golden Lion’ Best Film award. This is a gritty, deeply dark, disturbing but gripping character study, the like of which you won’t have seen before.

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in JOKER

Phoenix is troubled wannabe stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck

For me, from the moment the teaser trailer was released in April (read more in my post: Get Ready for Joaquin Phoenix’s JOKER to astonish us) I felt this was going to be something special. Then reading about the praise heaped onto the film at the Venice screening, watching the theatrical trailer released around that time, hearing about criticism from some quarters that the movie could incite violence, by the time JOKER opened in the U.K. and I was on my way to the cinema to see it, I thought could it possibly live up to what it was being hailed as – one of the best films of the year?

Well, from the opening scene where Arthur Fleck (the quite extraordinary Phoenix) is dressed as a clown to advertise a store sale and is set upon by a group of teenagers who steal his sign and then beat him mercilessly in an alley, you get the feeling this will not be a conventional comic book origin story. The Gotham City of 1981 in which Arthur lives is a place of unemployment, crime, and poverty, with a distinct echo of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Taxi Driver in the grimy, urban landscape. Arthur not only struggles with his job as a clown but also with his health. He is troubled and an almost maniacal laugh can spring forth from him spontaneously, causing people around him to think he’s odd, or mad, or both. The medication he takes, in addition to the trips to his social worker to talk about his feelings (a series of beautifully played scenes with Sharon Washington), doesn’t seem to help. He lives with and cares for his mother Penny (a wonderfully vulnerable Frances Conroy) and the daily grind of his life is sharply presented.

In this existence, a highlight of his day is to watch the evening talk show of Murray Franklin (an amazing King of Comedy-esque turn from the legendary Robert De Niro) with his mother. Arthur’s dream is to become a stand-up comedian and he imagines appearing on the show as a venerated guest, loved by audience and Murray alike. But in this story, there’s no fairytale scenario for Arthur – here, the path to this dream is littered with nightmares, pain, and violence.

“For my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do, and people are starting to notice.”

Joaquin Phoenix becomes the JOKER

Fleck becomes JOKER

As I came out from seeing JOKER, I thought that what Phillips has done so magnificently is whilst you can intellectually dissect the film, your experience of watching it is really about feeling. He, with his regular cinematographer Lawrence Sher, creates the most intense feeling in you, the audience, as you watch Phoenix’s journey – whether that be horror, glee, admiration or any one of a hundred other emotions. So much so that when you leave the cinema, it’s like you’ve got a headrush and need to sit down. Another key part of the experience is the extraordinary soundtrack from Icelandic composer Hildur Guonadottir – moody, disquieting strings mesh with pulsing bass notes to brilliant effect.

Although Phillips has made his name with comedies – some of those actually being pretty dark and twisted like The Hangover series – he’s really gone into a different league here. And his masterstroke was in casting Phoenix, an actor who I’ve celebrated in this blog for his versatility and mercurial talent. Aside from the weight loss in order to portray the strung-out Fleck as almost an other-worldly type creature, Phoenix is just so brilliant at pent-up rage which is seen to shocking effect here. The remainder of the supporting cast is exemplary too. From Zazie Beetz as Arthur’s neighbour Sophie and Brett Cullen as Thomas Wayne to Bill Camp and Shea Whigham as Gotham City cops and Leigh Gill and Glenn Fleshler as work colleagues Gary and Randall respectively, they’re all vivid and, at times, tragic characters.

This really is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. Do not miss it.