Wow, what a movie! No superhero/mega-villain shenanigans here, just the story of an unhinged incel loner being relentlessly and systematically hammered by life until he finally snaps, while around him a disturbingly familiar and unsympathetic world descends into bedlam. What comes later is DC history, with Batman deftly prefigured, but this is a total re-imagination of the earlier fan-friendly comic book loopiness. It’s a thoroughly dark genre backstory like nothing before.
Several crtics have argued that the central character’s misery and humiliation is lathered too thickly as the story progresses. It’s certainly discomfiting to watch, and there are one or two clunky moments, but for me Joaquin Phoenix inhabits Arthur Fleck so completely that you are wholly drawn with him as he is propelled by harrowing degrees from sad clown to deranged psycho. I was, anyway. I once knew a guy who, like Fleck, suffered from a pathological inability to control his laughter, only moreso. Without warning he would erupt over almost nothing into deafening shrieks and cackles, convulsed for what felt like an age until he collapsed through sheer exhaustion, purple-faced and drenched in sweat, dry-retching, his eyes moving from face to face in deep, deep embarrassment. This was more than thirty years ago when I was hitch-hiking around Europe, and I knew him for just a week or so, but he came back to me again and again as I watched Joker. Truly haunting.
It’s a shocker. But a brilliant one. Reviews haven’t been too kind, and there’s some concern that Joker is so dark as to inspire copycat violence by similarly alienated and enraged males. Impossible to say, but for me this performance has to carry an Oscar for Joaquin Phoenix. It’s astonishing; somewhat reminiscent of his character in You Were Never Really Here but with no one to save, not even himself. It also brings to mind Christian Bale’s Machinist. There’s a fine cameo from Robert De Niro role-reversing from Scorsese’s 1983 King of Comedy, now the shallow, cheesy chat-show host who becomes the straw that eventually breaks Arthur Fleck, transforming him from Rupert Pupkin into an even more estranged and traumatised Travis Bickle. There are countless other cultural and movie references throughout and it’s unapologetically violent, both physically and emotionally, but you can’t help but feel that its extremes are little more than a hair’s breadth away from a reality we’re far too close to inhabiting.
I could watch this film a few more times, and probably will. Dark, dark, dark, but original and absolutely compelling.