Joker Movie Review: A Slow Descent into Madness

If Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker seemed to suggest a benchmark, a yardstick by which all future Jokers should be judged, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance veers off the tracks of expectation, setting a new and different standard.

Of course, The Dark Knight and Joker are very different films. The former was dark, certainly, but mostly rooted in comic-book action and intrigue. The latter is not so much dark as black, a disturbing psychological odyssey into the mind of its main character.

There are very few theatrical set pieces in Joker: instead, there are lots of torturous scenes which chart Arthur Fleck’s descend into madness. Phoenix is in mesmeric form as the laughing loner who seeks to earn a crust in soulless 1980s Gotham as an amateur stand-up and hired clown. Not an obvious career choice for a person who was viciously abused as a kid and spends his nights tending to an infirm mother – but who can blame Fleck for trying to spread joy in such a joyless milieu?

Of course, he is not cut out for the job. Fleck’s misery is apparent throughout, and layer upon layer of misfortune only serves to reinforce his bleak worldview. That laugh, incidentally, is a tic and as far from the roguish chuckling of Nicholson and Ledger as it’s possible to get: his is a choked, dyspeptic, anguished howl. Throughout much of the film, the audience actually feels sympathy for Fleck, a solemn, rail-thin outsider who doesn’t appear violent or even particularly dangerous. On the contrary, he tries to make inquisitive children laugh by pulling faces on buses and in elevators. The message, one supposes, is that social factors can cohere to send a fairly harmless, albeit troubled, person down a dark path. Social factors which in Joker include relentless bullying and funding cuts to health services.

Making a madman

What Todd Phillips has sought to do with this movie is suggest a plausible backstory for Batman’s arch nemesis, one which dispenses with black and white notions of good and evil and instead questions the underpinnings of malevolence and hate. Here is how the Joker came to be; here is why he sees the world the way he does; here is how he became a lynchpin for Gotham’s disenfranchised. The effect is quite startling. 

Joker has never been more real, more unsettling. Gotham, a smoke-filled, garbage-strewn wasteland, has never looked less inviting. This feature is a complex slow-burner whose spiritual forebears cannot be located in the gaudy DC Comic Universe but in art-house films like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. If it’s sure to divide opinion, Phoenix’s performance should garner nothing but praise. Like Ledger’s grungy agent of chaos, he brings an eerie physicality to the role, whether when pursuing victims on the subway or dancing shirtless in his grimy living room, and he couples this with emotive intensity in both his dialogue and agitated bouts of unprovoked laughter. 

Among the supporting cast, Robert De Niro does a credible job as douchebag talk show host Murray Franklin, and a scene near the end of the film featuring Franklin and Fleck is one of the most devastating you’ll witness all year. But really, it’s all about Phoenix, Joker, Arthur Fleck. An alienated oddball whose sanity slowly unspools against the backdrop of an unforgiving city.




Words by Ronnie McCluskey