The film is dominated by an up-close character study of Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck. You are going to be spending a couple of hours in the close company of a compelling, gradually unfurling character, and for some of that time, he’s going to be sitting around on the sofa in his underpants. It is intimate, even invasive. You sit there in the cinema willing him to entertain you, to do some of the Joker’s hits, even when his life is falling apart and he’s trying to have a breakdown, thank you very much. You are part of the audience he will ultimately turn on. The couple of “Joker moments” that do occur are all the more liberating for it: I felt a heartening sense of having glimpsed someone fulfilling their potential. I know, my moral compass was probably already shot, but the film aided and abetted the reaction.
Fleck is a man struggling with mental illness and struggling financially. He works as a party clown and plans to take up stand-up comedy. An indifferent society literally gives him kicking at regular intervals. Contrary to some of the discussion around the film, he is not a total loser – he has occasional charisma, he has a love interest, he has nerve, he has shafts of self-knowledge that suggest his grapple with his mental health is not an obviously hopeless case.
The plot is part gritty urban drama, part making-of-a-serial-killer biopic. Overt connections to the DC franchise (sorry, “universe”) are kept to an absolute minimum, although the depiction of multi-TV-screen cultural buzz around the Joker’s havoc comes from Frank Miller’s comic The Dark Knight Returns. This film, like Miller’s comic, adapts the real-life controversy over the Bernhard Goetz subway shooting – you know Bernie Goetz, Billy Joel namechecks him in We Didn't Start The Fire – but where Miller removed the element of race and made it about vigilantism, Joker removes the element of race, brings in some Wall Street douchebags, and makes it about eating the rich. While we’re on the subject of comic-book inspirations, the clown mask craze is a brazen raid on V For Vendetta, and as far as I know, the struggling comedian backstory started in The Killing Joke, so chalk up yet another movie featuring the uncredited hand of Alan Moore.
Phoenix is excellent as Fleck. Physically intense, wiry and slightly grotesque, he makes a great clown, and not just in the make-up: there are moments such as his practising of TV interview poses on his mangy sofa that offers superb traditional clowning. After half an hour in his company, you may find that incredulous, hollow laughter feels like the only way to respond to grief, to impotent rage, to corporate or state officialdom. As some critics have pointed out, there isn’t much comedy in the film, but for my own part, like Fleck, I felt like I could see the deeper joke among the horror. Like Fleck, at times I wanted to laugh harder because no one else was laughing. It’s a pretty dark place, I’m afraid, you might not join him in his anarchic nihilism if you’re not halfway there already. There’s excellent support from the rest of the cast, but Fleck takes up the entire foreground – just as Mr J would expect.
The pacing of the film is slow and steady. It pointedly doesn’t speed up in line with its gradually increasing plot momentum. It will cue up a plot point but then stick with the humdrum daily grind for a few scenes before delivering the anticipated event. The inability to duck the daily crap the world throws at you is crucial to such sympathy as the film manages to enlist.
There are a couple of bursts of memorable violence, but really not that much. Mostly it’s just creative, assured filmmaking. The action scene in the subway drags you, with Fleck, seamlessly from self-defence to murder – I didn’t process the transition until after the fact. Once I had stopped, um, cheering internally. So arrest me. Later, there’s a brilliant scene in the aftermath of a killing which blends tension and humour almost unbearably.
Joker’s Gotham City setting is totally unlike the shadowy cityscapes we are used to, but it serves a similar artistic function. I tend to think of the “classic” Gotham City look, especially the Tim Burton Gotham, as being a reflection of Batman’s mind: all shining spires and labyrinthine back alleys, bright lights casting deeper shadows, civic grandeur menaced by bombs in the sewers. This Gotham looks and feels totally different, but it’s Arthur Fleck’s inner state: humdrum, coldly indifferent, no one has collected the trash for so long the rats are starting to run around unchecked, and ultimately, riots break out.
Overall, the film is very like Fleck himself. Given what we expect of a Joker, Fleck disappoints in terms of wit, disappoints in terms of style. But he has a riveting kind of confidence, he will say just what he feels the need to, in his own sweet time – he disconcerts polished talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) every time they interact, as well as a procession of hapless representatives of the many faces of officialdom. There are better making-of-a-serial-killer movies. There are better urban crime dramas. There are better superhero movies. But this stylistically unpredictable amalgam of a film makes itself a unique niche and occupies it.