“What do you get if you cross a mentally-ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” This is the sort of killing joke delivered by party clown Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) as he embarks on an unlikely career in standup comedy. The punchline is: one of the best films of 2019 and a devastating performance from one of our finest actors. Joker is ostensibly a DC Comics origin story of Batman’s enemy, The Joker, but Todd Phillips’ film is a long way from superhero CGI bombast. Instead it feels like a 1970s arthouse classic, a Taxi Driver for our own troubled times.
Similarities with Scorsese’s antihero, Travis Bickle, were also made after Phoenix’s last film, You Were Never Really Here (2018). The actor has shed much of his (then) bear-like bulk to portray the wiry Arthur, who sometimes contorts his torso like a tortured Iggy Pop, but also waltzes gracefully with his mother (Frances Conroy), who he still lives with. Their favourite TV programme is the Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) talk show, which Arthur dreams of appearing on.
We are in Gotham City, 1981. Garbage is piling up in the streets and ‘Super rats’ are on the loose. Graffiti-covered subway trains flash past like pop art film strips. As funding cuts start to bite, resentments simmer, not helped by mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) labelling the poor as ‘clowns.’
The film opens with the camera on Arthur’s clown face. It seems like he is practicing laughing in front of the mirror, but his eyes signal despair and this laughter feels more like crying. We later learn that he has a neurological condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably at random times; he has a printed card that explains this to members of the public. Arthur is on seven different sorts of medication but still can’t get relief from his mental suffering, telling his social worker that he felt better when he was “locked up in the hospital”.
After Arthur gets beaten up by robbers while working on the street, a sympathetic colleague gives him a gun to defend himself from “all the crazy shit out there.” As he begins his quest for recognition, what could possibly go wrong?
As part of a magnetic performance that dominates Joker, Joaquin Phoenix humanizes his anti-hero. Arthur has old-fashioned manners; he deplores how ‘awful’ people are, these days. He is kind to old ladies and children. There are glimmers of light in the darkness of his life, but how many are real, rather than just fantasy?
Arthur’s mental turmoil and journey to his new Joker persona are mirrored by a terrific original score from Icelandic composer and cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir. Her mournful cello builds to a glacial intensity and, joined by violins and clattering percussion, achieves a symphonic grandeur.
Another musical highlight is the use of Gary Glitter’s 1972 hit Rock and Roll Part 2, which adds a transgressive frisson to one of Joker’s most stylish and memorable scenes: the perfect ‘outlawed’ soundtrack to the creation of an outlaw. The film’s representatives have been quick to point out that the disgraced former pop star didn’t earn a penny in royalties from the song’s use.
The Joker himself looks like a kind of mongrel 80’s pop star, with the face of Morrissey, the hair of Bono, make-up by Kiss and wardrobe by Kid Creole & The Coconuts.