Long before it was released Todd Phillips’s Joker was shaping as the most controversial film this year in the United States. The big sticking point is the portrayal of the famous super villain as a sad, mentally-disturbed loser driven to breaking point by a series of unhappy breaks that would have shredded Job’s fortitude.
Arthur Fleck is one of life’s victims. In his forties he lives with his invalid mother (Frances Conroy) in a seedy apartment block in Gotham City. He imagines a future for himself as a stand-up comedian but he’s scary rather than funny. Arthur has a mental problem that causes him to laugh hysterically when under pressure – and every day brings new pressures.
That laugh is a high-pitched shriek which cascades into a mad cackle. It’s one of the few recognisable traits he shares with the Joker we know from the Batman movies.
Arthur’s day job is working as a clown, complete with fright wig, grease paint and floppy shoes, but rather than spreading joy he attracts aggravation. He’s beaten up more than once, betrayed by friends, and conceives a hopeless passion for the single mum who lives down the hall (Zazie Beetz). His own mother is forever writing letters to her former employer – bilionaire busnessman Thomas Wayne, (Yes, another Trump surrogate!) who ignores her pleas for assistance.
No present-day actor is better than Joaquin Phoenix when it comes to playing the psycho. He was chilling last year in the role of a well-intentioned serial killer in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really There. That film now reads like a rehearsal for Joker. There was the same mad stare, the same hesitant, stumbling speech, the same buried trauma. The character even lived with his old mum.
Phoenix was always going to have to work hard to get past Heath Ledger’s electrifying performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight Rises (2008), but he’s incandescent. There’s rarely a moment when Phoenix isn’t on screen. We follow him through every sordid episode of Arthur’s life, and creep inside his mind. Todd Phillips makes these fantasy sequences so naturalistic we are continually having to do a double-take. It seems impossible that Arthur would elicit warm, paternal feelings from talk show host, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro); or get admiring looks from the girl down the hall.
It’s all in his head, and for a few bewildering minutes it’s in ours as well. The real Arthur seems designed to give everyone the creeps with his long greasy hair, his boney frame, and his weird stare. When he smiles it comes across as a sinister leer. It’s so creepy it may prevent Phoenix from taking out the Oscar for which he is now a front-runner.
The critical disapproval of Joker seems to kick in when Arthur undergoes a transformation which permits him to unleash the violent impulses that have been raging around in hs psyche for most of his life. His sickness is exacerbated by Gotham – a city in which plutocrats such as Thomas Wayne just keep getting richer, while the poor are ground ever more deeply into the dirt. When social services are cut Arthur no longer gets his medication, and the demons start to emerge.
The truly drastic part of the film is the way Arthur achieves what psychologists call ‘self-actualisation’ through murder. He finds it’s exhilarating to blow someone away, and hey, they all deserve it. What’s even better is that his crazed deeds find a host of admirers. Suddenly Gotham City is overrun with ‘killer clowns’. The underclass is rising to take a revenge on those who have taken everything else, and Arthur is their hero. It’s a much bigger thrill than making people laugh.
To get to this vision of ascendent anarchy Phillips takes us through a long, intense wind-up, with more than a nod towards the fims of Martin Scorsese, especially The King of Comedy (1983), which features De Niro as the psychotic would-be comic. We feel sympathy for Arthur even though he’s a repellent personality. When he turns on his tormentors we’re on his side. At least until everything goes too far. I suspect it’s this feeling of complicity that troubles the film’s detractors, who see Arthur as a close cousin of those gunmen who keep killing innocent people in public places. The worry is that Joker will incite violence, although every second American movie might be liable to that charge. Did somebody say “Quentin Tarantino”?
To view this film through the lens of moral indignation is a poor way way of reading a movie that finally succeeds in putting a human face to a character from a superhero comic. Perhaps the trick is to leave out the capes and leotards altogether. Batman is present in only the most oblique way, as Thomas Wayne’s small, pampered son.
Arthur may be a head case but his madness is presented as a natural reaction to the circumstances his life. As usual, it’s a reminder of the deep divisions that have opened up in American society during the age of Trump. If violence is a natural product of a community that is learning to take pleasure from hatred, Joker affords us a glimpse of the coming apocalypse. It might once have been dismissed as a Hollywood fantasy but as the pillars of Amercan democracy develop more cracks than a new Sydney housing estate, it all seems disturbingly plausible.
Directed by Todd Phillips
Written by Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp
USA/Canada, rated MA 15+, 122 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 5 October, 2019