The camera crawls slowly towards a figure perched in front of a large, luminescent mirror. It sits on the Joker bearing a full face of his inimitable makeup, a single black tear trickling down his cheek. He pops a thumb into each corner of his mouth to extend a craggy, malevolent smile.
This is how Todd Phillips’ Joker origin story begins. Assured and understated. The sort of minor key intro that signposts to the audience they are in for a very different type of comic book-related film ride. In this case a melancholic psychodrama punctuated by splashes of shocking violence.
“I just hope my death makes more sense than my life,” the embattled pre-Joker, Arthur Fleck confesses via a scribble in his tattered old journal. With an inscrutable gaze, his social worker looks on having just witnessed Fleck laugh over nothing in particular for the past sixty seconds or so. Prescribed with seven different meds to temper his psychosis, he is a man on the brink.
Arthur works low-end jobs holding commercial signs on busy thoroughfares. He gurns and gesticulates for the amusement of sick children dressed as a clown. He looks after his housebound mother, helping her to wash. Together they watch their TV show staple: Tonight with Murray Franklin – Fleck drifting into fanciful fantasies of being onstage with Murray, applause bouncing off the studio walls.
The presence of Robert De Niro in the role of charismatic talk show host Murray Franklin is quietly vital to the movie’s credibility, offering a tacit admission of the similitude with the Scorsese/De Niro 1982 vehicle The King of Comedy.
In many ways, Arthur Fleck is that film’s Rupert Pupkin. Much like Pupkin, Fleck wants to be a stand-up comedian. He wants to bring joy to the world. He wants to make people smile. He wants to be loved and give love in return. Fleck quickly discovers that the world is not so welcoming. It is a vicious, dog-eat-dog place where people are quick to ridicule, alienate, denigrate and isolate.
The role of the Joker is delicious for any actor, enabling them to roll up their sleeves and get all wacky and outlandish. They can ham it up and hammer it home. But considering the iconic turn of the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, the shoes to fill are large, requiring a heavyweight actor bringing nothing less than their A-game.
Joaquin Phoenix, however, likes a challenge. Be it taking his method acting to an unwitting Late Show with David Letterman as a fictional hip-hop artist for I’m Still Here or having his jaw wired shut on one side by a dentist for his role in The Master. For this turn, he lost 40 pounds of weight by consuming little more than an apple a day.
The sacrifice has been worth it. The appearance is one thing, but the all-round delivery is a tour-de-force. He pulls off the difficult trick of delivering an anti-hero whom connects with the viewer even though they may deplore his decisions and abhor his actions. Phoenix translates this discombobulating sensation out of the screen and into your senses. The Academy might as well give Phoenix the Oscar now.
By paring it all down, in the first of what is to be known as ‘DC Black’, a series of films away from the DC Extended Universe, the company have made a picture destined to challenge Marvel’s dominance. It should also help restore faith in the ailing DC brand too.
If there is one criticism to levy at Joker, it is that one of the climactic scenes is extended past the point in which belief can be suspended considering its very ‘real world’ context. To say anything less cryptic would spoil the surprise though.
Anyway, that alone isn’t enough to derail the power of this instant classic. Yup, instant classic. Bold words. Bold proclamation. It is said without fear of plausible recrimination. Todd Phillips’ isn’t clowning around. This is edge-of-your-seat stuff. This is outstanding.
Joker arrives in UK cinemas on October 4