“I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realise, it’s a comedy”Review by Lily Taylor
Somebody get Joaquin Phoenix an Oscar right this second. His performance as Arthur Fleck and his metamorphosis into Joker is, without a doubt, phenomenal. There was a lot of hype surrounding the release of ‘Joker’ and I was worried the film wouldn’t be able to live up; I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Set it 1981 Gotham City where a garbage strike has flooded the streets with mountains of rubbish, super-rats and a dangerously disillusioned populous, Arthur Fleck is employed as a clown for hire and lives with his elderly mother Penny (Frances Conroy). Penny spends her time fretting over their finances and imploring local tycoon Thomas Wayne to save her and her son from poverty. Early in the film, Arthur meets with social services and we find that he is quite heavily medicated for mental health issues, he also suffers from a neurological condition resulting in uncontrollable fits of laughter that don’t correlate with his mood. Sadly, it’s clear this service is greatly underfunded and Arthur’s support worker eventually advises she will be unable to meet him and supply his medication going forward due to funding withdrawal. I must say, this sounds about right for the American healthcare system!
Following a slightly sordid incident whilst entertaining at a children’s hospital, great timing I know, Arthur loses his job as a clown and with it goes his only source of income. He takes the subway home and is confronted by three drunk businessmen, you know the type. The men mock him for his uncontrollable laughter and start beating him on the floor of the subway. Arthur shoots two of the businessmen in self defence and follows the third out onto the platform to make sure he is dead.
Arthur unwittingly sparks a sociopolitical movement against Gotham’s privileged residents through the murders of the businessmen and protesters begin wearing clown masks in his image. This marks the beginning of Arthur Fleck’s descent into fully fledged insanity. The culmination of his unemployment, sick mother and lack of psychiatric medication leads to a violent yet perfect ending. The plot guides the viewer through Fleck’s demise and you’re never quite sure what’s real and what is simply one of Arthur’s many delusions. I found myself wanting to know more about Arthur’s childhood and previous incarceration in Arkham Asylum but I think keeping part of Joker’s past shrouded in mystery is a vital part of what makes the character.
The cinematography in ‘Joker’ is so deliberate and fully formed; it’s clear from one of the opening scenes where Arthur lays beaten up in an alley and water leaks out of his clown flower onto the pavement, that every detail has been added to the film with purpose. The Joker is a story that’s been done so many times before that it’s a challenge to bring something new and dynamic to the character, but my god does director Todd Phillips do it well. I found myself sympathising with Arthur in so many ways, feeling as though Joker is a direct product of his environment and has descended to this level of madness through little fault of his own.
As for the acting, I didn’t think I could appreciate Joaquin Phoenix any more after falling in love with Theodore Twombley in ‘Her’ but his performance in ‘Joker’ is of the highest calibre and I think he gets it just right. Phoenix has obviously lost a lot of weight for the role so Arthur cuts a very unique and almost sickly figure in his burgundy suit with mustard waistcoat. Many people have complained that they found Arthur’s mental state triggering but I thought they dealt with mental health in a raw and honest way, especially showing a lack of support and funding from government organisations. Arthur writes in his notebook ‘the worst part of having a mental illness is having to pretend you don’t’, scenes like this allow the audience to identify with him on a personal level, to see some of the struggle he faces internally. I can’t stress to you enough how perfect I found Phoenix’s performance; the way he often dances, when he rehearses his performance on ‘The Murray Franklin Show’, the final scene where he stands on top of a police car amid clown faced rioters. There are so many subtleties that he absolutely nails. Looking back at the film as a whole there is clear and sustained character development from a troubled man who takes good care of his ailing mother into a public symbol of destruction and all the tiny details and interactions that accumulate leaving him no choice but to assume the identity of ‘Joker’.
The soundtrack was well chosen, I just don’t think you can beat a cheerful tune played sarcastically alongside violent events. The scene in which he dances down the stairs in his suit and full clown makeup is a cinematic masterpiece and I would give the film an Oscar for that alone. Supporting characters were well written and performed, Robert De Niro plays ‘Murray Franklin’ the colourful talk show host who meets a bitter end, you get what you fucking deserve Murray! Zazie Beetz plays the unrequited love interest who frequently features in Arthur’s delusions but has very minimal interaction with him in reality. Finally, Thomas Wayne is played by Peter Cullen who gives a very convincing performance as the billionaire tycoon and maintained his bureaucratic composure when faced with Arthur’s growing lunacy. Overall it’s Phoenix that shines as the movies centrepiece and it almost didn’t matter what Phillips did with the storyline because I was so captivated by his transformation into ‘Joker’.
There is just a tiny little something stopping me from christening this a perfect film. Perhaps it’s the way Arthur lets cigarette ash fall all over the place despite abundant ash trays, or maybe it’s little Tommy Wayne’s expressionless face, I can’t quite put my finger on it but trust me, it’s there. I’ll let you know if I figure out what it is.