Todd Phillips’ Joker is deeply unsettling. It’s a film which follows you home at night, insidious and nightmarish. Such is the origin story of one of pop culture’s most recognisable villains.
It’s 1981 and Gotham is on the knife’s edge: garbage piles at every corner, streets are overrun by rats, and the rich blame the poor as public funding is cut and unemployment climbs. The world is falling apart, and Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) slowly paints his clown face, grimacing as a tear streaks down his cheek – this won’t be the story of the Joker you know, the film announces, but that of who came before.
If Joker opts for a polite nod to DC lore, it nonetheless refuses to be limited by existing mythology, shaping itself into a standalone, deranged, neo-noir character study. This, without devaluing the role of others involved, is Phoenix’s film. The actor dropped a significant amount of weight for the role, the lost pounds serving to hollow out his face and darken his eyes, transforming his body into a disturbingly insect-like figure. When he moves, dances, runs, his body contorts and unfurls with pain. Arthur never feels truly human, but rather an imitation of a man.
Take, for example, laughter; a very human trait. Yet in Phoenix’s hands, Arthur’s laughs are wrong, delirious, uncomfortable, painful. “Forgive my laughter. I have a condition” says the worn card he carries around with him – his laughter isn’t even laughter, but the sign of a man on the edge. Phillips dares the viewer to try and sympathise with his protagonist, placing him as a victim to beatings, to his mother’s needs, to a broken medical system that can no longer provide him his meds.
The director and co-writer presents situations that ought to stir pity for Arthur, perhaps even a level of understanding for his slow yet inevitable descent into violence, then interspaces them with reminders that this is a man who is not just empty and angry, but who is dishonest. Joker’s narrator is unreliable, showing us one thing only have it revealed these are just manifestations of his imagination. This builds a feeling of paranoia and distrust where, even when Arthur Fleck presents as a sad victim, you can’t help but question whether any of it is true.
And the further the film unravels, the further away Arthur feels. As his brutal murders evolve from being the result of a provocation, to revenge, to spite and finally enjoyment, the character comes into his own. Editor Jeff Groth builds tension to unbearable levels, climaxing in moments of catharsis for both the character and the audience. The former is soothed by the violence, enlivened by it, while the latter is relieved by the confirmation that no, this is not someone for whom to feel compassion. Gone are the pretences of humanity, freed is the Joker.
The film speaks to the rage of the disenfranchised, who in Gotham find their hero in the unknown killer clown, to no-hope politics, to social alienation. Where Heath Ledger’s Joker can be viewed as a reflection of 9/11, a terrorist who seemed to come out of nowhere strictly to cause pain and destruction, today’s Joker is the man who was there all along, on the outskirts of society, and who finds identity and meaning in violence. Joker is enthralling, stylish, smart, chaotic, and fundamentally disturbing; it’s a film which consumes you as you struggle to claw your way out.