THOSE of a certain vintage will remember The Joker of old. Long before Batman ventured into dark territory, he and his enemies, like the Joker, were cartoonish characters.
Punches never landed; blood was never shed. Kapow and blap splashed across the screen substituted for violence. It was true family entertainment.
Then came the 1980s movies where darkness began to creep in and a change of tone marked a new area. Jack Nicholson brought his brand of manic to the role of The Joker, but still it erred on the side of family friendly caution.
Along came Christopher Nolan, who gave us The Dark Knight, the characters of Gotham City were no longer safe for young audiences and Heath Ledger powerhoused his way through The Joker’s repertoire to such an extent that he couldn’t sleep at night. His reign ended in real life tragedy.
Jared Leto joined the gang as the next Joker and sent his cast mates rats in the post: the Joker gets into your head, makes you do odd things, he said.
As the darkness grew, so too did the performances, but none can reach the level of the latest Joker on the block, Joaquin Phoenix, who gives a career-defining turn in Todd Philips’s new film.
This starts long before Batman existed and Joker is Arthur Fleck. He works as a clown, a job he loves, but he gets a lot of hassle for it. He is advertising a closing down sale outside a shop when hoodlums steal his sign and beat him to a pulp when he tries to get it back. It’s obvious this isn’t the first time he has been beaten up. He has a neurological condition that makes his body break out in laughter at inappropriate moments. It’s painful and emotionally exhausting. He carries a card to give to people to explain by way of apology.
Society isn’t forgiving of his condition or strange behaviour. He has multiple mental health conditions, takes handfuls of pills daily to manage them, and regularly visits a social worker. He had been hospitalised in the past. His life is not good and he lives with constant negative thoughts.
At home he cares for his elderly mother, Penny (Frances Conroy). Watching TV with her is the only thing that appears to make him happy. He is besotted with Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) a TV host. He mimics his guests and dreams of one day being on a show like that. He wants to be a comedian, but isn’t very funny and the laughing condition makes it hard for him to speak in public.
Joker takes a shine to Sophie (Zazie Beetz), who lives down the corridor. She ignores his quirks and sees more in Arthur than others do.
His mother is obsessed with writing letters to Thomas Wayne, the millionaire father of Bruce —who will be Batman when he grows up. She worked for him years ago and wants him to help her and Arthur out financially. Their flat is in a rundown building, Arthur doesn’t earn much as a clown. They need help. She is convinced Wayne will help them out, he is a benevolent millionaire.
When Arthur tries to visit Wayne Manor things don’t go too well and he goes home frustrated, but frustration is the least of his problems. He was given a gun by one of his work colleagues. He gets fired from work for bringing it to a children’s hospital, then proceeds to shoot dead three men who were attacking him on the subway. The self-defence argument won’t work — it was literally overkill.
Joker was wearing his clown make up at the time so it’s hard for the police to identify him. The three victims worked for Gotham City’s Wall Street and the people of the city, beset with poverty, react with support for the clown — they see it as an attack on the system that keeps them down.
As popularity for the clown rises, Arthur gains confidence, slowly becoming the Joker — a crazed, brutal killer.
From the get-go, Phoenix bares his soul in a performance that will go down as one of cinema’s greatest. He has physically transformed himself and is painfully thin. His walk, his stance, every trace of Phoenix is gone and in his place is a character twisted and battered by life.
Somehow this manages not to make us condone his actions, despite allowing us to understand the reasons behind them.
It’s uncomfortable to watch, beautifully shot, and immensely palpable throughout, but the overriding element is Phoenix’s magnificent performance.
The final act left me with shivers up my spine. This is cinema at its very best.