“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” the soon-to-be supervillain asks his counsellor in this magnificently gritty, socially conscious skew on the comic-book origin tale. It turns Batman’s arch-nemesis into an incel-like loner, languishing on the sidelines of life.
Infused with the grimy splendour of a Martin Scorsese picture, it’s a film that substantially simmers, with outbursts of shocking, impactful violence. With the laser-focus of a character piece and boasting an original story, Joker is a pretty radical departure for both the genre and for director Todd Phillips, best known for men-gone-wild comedies like The Hangover and Due Date.
Intended to launch a series of standalone comic-book films, it’s set in Gotham City, 1981, and stars Joaquin Phoenix as protagonist Arthur Fleck. First seen grotesquely pulling faces as he lacquers himself in clown war paint for an inauspicious street gig, this hard-up, mentally ill loner is prone to spasms of hollow, high-pitched laughter that he tells people are the result of a neurological condition.
With his life an endless succession of public humiliations and nights in with elderly mother Penny (Frances Conroy), Arthur fantasises about stand-up success and romance with neighbour Sophie (Zazie Beetz), and develops a fixation on cheesy talk-show host Murray Franklin (an enjoyably over-made-up Robert De Niro). Meanwhile, his mother writes begging letters to her wealthy former employer Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) hoping he will take pity on them.
The product of a cruel, cruel world, Arthur is part Travis Bickle, part Rupert Pupkin but strange, unpredictable and multi-faceted enough to also evoke both Charlie Chaplin (seen here in Modern Times) and Fred Astaire in his occasionally graceful physicality. There have been several iconic takes on the Joker (who first appeared in comic book form in 1940 in Batman #1) – from Cesar Romero’s camp goofball to a smirking, quipping Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning agitator – yet it feels like only Phoenix could have brought this particular manifestation so vividly to life.
Drawing on the psychotic intensity he displayed in Lynne Ramsay’s masterful You Were Never Really Here, Arthur’s anxieties seem to course through the actor, infesting every inch of his body as he contorts his emaciated frame like a man possessed. It’s a chilling, wholly compelling turn, worthy of structuring an entire film around, which Phillips does skilfully, though supporting talent like Shea Whigham, Bill Camp and Brian Tyree Henry are little more than a classy wallpaper.
Although the character is as nihilistic as ever, the film has enough political fervour in its swipes at healthcare cuts and widespread poverty to feel like it stands for something. Arthur’s psychological problems pile up like the bin bags on the street, while his sense of entitlement – to women, success, his place in the spotlight – fuels his rage.
Following a credible trajectory, there’s an overarching sympathy for Arthur’s predicament but, as his capacity for violence is unleashed and his confidence grows, he begins to loom terrifyingly large and the familiar pieces begin to shift into place.
Rather than leaven the tension with smatterings of his traditional bad-taste humour, Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver make us stew in the discomfort; it’s two hours in the close company of a truly disconcerting individual, placed smack-bang in the middle of a combustible context, as resentment toward the rich threatens to erupt into riots.
For all their real-world references, superhero movies tend to function as escapism, a way to examine our failings from a comfortable remove. Joker, on the other hand, feels like a damning indictment of societal ills, a study in how real monsters are made; it’s a film that’s desperately, maybe even depressingly relevant.