In a year that’s seen the US ravaged by bullet-torn adversity, evil has become a dark commodity. Extremists’ fantasies are continually enabled in the pits of the web, inspiring pilgrimages of blood that flood headlines.
The Clown Prince of Crime would probably relish today’s culture.
With that in mind, audiences may not be ready for Joker – a shocking, provocative, utterly beautiful vision of a cruel world set alight.
Check out the latest trailer below:
‘Nobody is civil anymore,’ Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) angrily posits. He’s a man disregarded by a society which ‘treats him like trash’.
Stuck in a dead-end clown job and battling his mental demons hour-by-hour, Arthur’s solace is at home; scribbling aspirational stand-up comedy titbits while watching Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) on TV and looking after his frail mother (Francis Conroy) à la You Were Never Really Here.
Alan Moore’s Joker famously said: ‘All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.’ Todd Phillips, on the other hand, tracks that monstrous descent (or rise) across a number of incidents on the dark side of Gotham’s metropolis.
A vicious jumping by a group of teenage goons, a nighttime train assault by drunken Wall Street jocks: Arthur continually suffers at the hands of emotional and physical oppression.
Phillips has been caught on record saying he just wanted to make ‘a real movie’ as opposed to a comicbook film. That statement aside, it’s clear the director led Joker with a strong affection for the classics – namely, Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre.
Arthur is almost a more deranged cut of the obsessive King of Comedy Rupert Pupkin, navigating grimier, less compassionate Taxi Driver surroundings. Phoenix’s extravagant dancing, whether it be in a bathroom or on wet steps to the tune of Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll Part 2, evoke memories of Travis Bickle’s ‘You talkin’ to me?’ theatrics.
While Phillips’ command isn’t quite as sharp, as an intense character study it carries somewhat of a nostalgic allure (that, plus the retro Warner Bros. logo and De Niro’s slightly spicier take on Jerry Lewis’ King of Comedy).
Check out the first trailer below:
Joker is, first and foremost, an origin story: the saga of how a mentally ill man courts with malice until the inevitable lust takes hold of him. While Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver paint their pro/antagonist with small strokes of The Killing Joke’s failing comic, this is an entirely new beast altogether.
The charm of the iconic Batman adversary is, generally, his lack of past or mission (aside from battling the caped crusader). No version is concrete, no motives solid: he’s an agent of chaos. Heath Ledger retained this trait with the ever-changing story behind the facial scars, whereas Jack Nicholson had a mobster background, transformed into the giggling megalomaniac by a chemical pool.
Never has the villain’s ascent to madness been captured with so much humanity. As a portrait of a desperate soul wrestling with an unyielding society – ‘I just don’t want to feel so bad anymore,’ he tells his nonplussed social worker – Phillips’ work is hugely effective.
However, the trail of horrific events leading to the coda of chaos play with your sympathy: as the mental make-up of Arthur flourishes into something grislier and far more despicable, you’ll wrestle with your ethics.
The explosions of breathtakingly brutal violence are hair-raising – and inexcusable – but somehow, it’s hard to ignore the twinge of jubilance you feel as he conquers a broken city with such ease.
We’re in 1981 Gotham. Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), a one-percent billionaire industrialist, brands those who haven’t made something of their lives, the less-fortunate, as ‘clowns’ on-air.
The movement this inspires, alongside Arthur’s unlikely disruptor, is firmly anti-Trump – although its ruthless rallying against the rich, playing out like nihilistic Bernie Sanders cultism with a dose of 8chan, is very on-the-nose. It’s like Ledger said: ‘It’s not about money, it’s about sending a message.’
The direction is robust, making a slow-burn feel dizzyingly propulsive. But the beauty of the thing is something to behold: Lawrence Sher, who shot The Hangover trilogy with surprising panache, really raises the game. Gotham may be in decay, but it’s showcased with staggering elegance, city vistas contrasting the textured, stunningly lit interiors Arthur stews and jives in.
One can’t neglect praise of Hildur Guðnadóttir (who won the Emmy for her musical work on HBO’s Chernobyl), whose sorrowful, haunting cello composition strikes real misery into the villainy.
The craft is impressive, but this is undoubtedly Phoenix’s film – and you daren’t look away. You hang on every word, breath, twitch and painful cackle; it’s a virtuoso, truly electric display of finely tuned character work. From the weight-loss (52 pounds, to be exact) to the most torturous, uneasing Joker laugh to date, Phoenix inhabits every fibre of Arthur’s being.
Much screaming hyperbole has been dished out for the actor since the movie’s Venice premiere – he deserves all of it.
A mesmerising, incendiary portrait of villainy. Brutal, unforgiving and extraordinarily led by Phoenix, Joker might well be the film of the year.
Joker hits UK cinemas on October 4.
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After graduating from Glasgow Caledonian University with an NCTJ and BCTJ-accredited Multimedia Journalism degree, Cameron ventured into the world of print journalism at The National, while also working as a freelance film journalist on the side, becoming an accredited Rotten Tomatoes critic in the process. He’s now left his Scottish homelands and took up residence at UNILAD as a journalist.