Venice first look: Joker’s alienated antihero is no laughing matter

Todd Phillips’s dark origin story for Batman’s nemesis soars past its troubling ideological confusion on a cascade of Scorsese references and a killer performance from Joaquin Phoenix. 

Christina Newland

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Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Joker

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Joker

When Arthur Fleck laughs, it seems like the laughter is being ripped from his lungs. It seems to rattle through his whole body, and his eyes look pained, as if he might be sobbing instead. It’s a condition, according to a little card that he must carry for medical purposes, similar to Tourette Syndrome. This peal of mirthless hysterics comes abruptly and uncontrollably. It happens on the bus where it alarms children, or on stage during Arthur’s hopelessly bad attempts at standup comedy. What might seem absurd on paper – a medical justification for the classic comic book villain’s maniacal laughter – works inexplicably well in situ.

In another one of those performances that would look far worse had anyone else tried it, Joaquin Phoenix plays our Gotham villain-to-be as a lonely, mentally ill man living with his elderly mother in an increasingly dank, dangerous city circa 1981. The hyperreal, grimy production design is wreathed in sallow yellow and murky green, and Arthur keeps away the nightmarish loneliness of the city around him by dreaming of a life as a beloved comedian.

Initially, Arthur seems like a gentle soul, clearly incapable of social interaction and oblivious to cues, but his particular strain of weirdness is alarming enough to attract bullies; he is twice beaten up by people on the street, laughed at by strangers, and ostracised in his day job as a party clown. A colleague gives him a gun for self-protection, and this is – pointedly, I think – the moment where a bedroom-dwelling weirdo is transformed into something far more sinister. His slip-thin torso twists like a corkscrew as he dances through his living room, doing an old-school little show-biz shuffle with a .38 in hand. He’s backsliding, and his transformation into the Joker has begun.

This is madness, as Phoenix plays it, that is both suffocatingly disturbing and surprisingly sympathetic, even as he grows increasingly bent on destruction. Todd Phillips has stolen wholesale chunks from the work of Martin Scorsese, especially both Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1984). The former informs the whole cityscape and visual elements of the film, as with shots of Arthur regarding his droning TV set with a loaded gun in hand. He even has a journal, much like the real-life vigilante Arthur Bremer, the man Travis Bickle was modelled on. I’m sure the character’s first name is no accident.

Phoenix as Fleck

Phoenix as Fleck

Quoting so liberally from these two masterpieces doesn’t exactly flatter their imitator, but perhaps the best way to deal with that is to own up to it: that’s likely why Arthur’s idol, TV host and talk show comic Murray Franklin, is played by Robert De Niro, picking up the Jerry Lewis role from King of Comedy with suitably glossy self-importance. Joker not only imitates these movies but seems to be an exercise in imagining Scorsese’s maladjusted men in a place where they find some level of satisfaction.

He’s a monster, and we know so; but he’s also a subversive agent of chaos striking out against Thomas Wayne, an unfeeling millionaire running for mayor of Gotham. There’s a plot strand around the lack of social safety net, which affects Arthur’s ability to get the medication he needs. This all feels very in keeping with a liberal worldview. The trouble is that its lionising of the loner-hero is also just as easily associated to the rhetoric of the Trump supporter; common folks who are sick of perceived elites, using violence as a means to empower themselves.

This may be the biggest issue with Joker, the confused ideological mish-mashing: right-on in one moment and uncomfortable in the next. Narratively, there are real moments of shock, degradation and exhilaration in this film, many derived from Phoenix’s performance. Ideas-wise, it’s only slightly less superficial than so many other comic-book movies, but judging by pure entertainment factor, it’s a thrill to watch.


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