Why is Batman’s arch-nemesis The Joker such a fascinating character? A character that filmmakers and audiences alike are endlessly drawn to? Christopher Nolan got it, his Joker, stunningly portrayed by Heath Ledger, was not a man of contradictions. Every time he explains his backstory you learn it’s a lie. Why? Because, as Alfred so eloquently puts it, “some people, Master Wayne, just want to watch the world burn.” The Joker rarely needs an explanation beyond that. He is an enigma, and it makes him chilling. So it is a brave move by The Hangover director Todd Phillips and star Joaquin Phoenix to embark upon a Joker origin story.
Arthur Peck (Phoenix) is a down on his luck aspiring comedian caring for his aging mother (Frances Conroy). Peck spends his life with a number of mental health issues, including when he is uncomfortable he laughs uncontrollably. In a town like Gotham where the 1% rule and the rest are expected to accept their lot in life, Peck finds himself increasingly on the periphery of society. With the world in turmoil Peck will find himself reaching breaking point just as the touchpaper on the city is being lit.
Desperate to pay homage to the gritty films of the 70s and 80s, Phillips seems to be using Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy and Taxi Driver as a template for a man’s descent into violence. The casting of De Niro directly reflects this. From a visual point of view, Joker absolutely nails this aspiration. The cinematography is, at times, indelible. The final act in particular capturing a sense of time and place of a bygone era of cinema and a society howling at the moon in madness.
Determined to go against the superheroes zeitgeist, almost exclusively owned by Marvel at this point in time, Phillips and Warner are keen to capture the bleak outlook of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, that sense of the world crumbling. While Marvel might be a sense of escapism, Joker is a dose of reality. And in this, it works, acting as a dark deep-dive into a mentally ill man ignored and outcast from the world around him.
Where the film falls short is that while it might want to emulate the likes of Taxi Driver it feels the need to explain too much. Travis Bickle is one of cinema’s great characters because we don’t know what, if anything, is actually wrong with him, he is a mystery but a mystery that we are able to, if not agree with, at least understand. Joker meanwhile pulls a more emotional punch, Phillips and Phoenix have us caring for Peck, feeling sorry for him. It works in the context of the story on offer – a man pushed to the brink and beyond – but undermines the essence of what DC Comics’ Joker was all about, a man that needed no explanation and certainly not a man easy to sympathise with.
In his Oscar winning performance Phoenix is stunning. Utterly transformed into the skin and bones frame of Peck. His body language both hunched over and graphically deformed one minute, lyth and disturbingly flexing the next. At times Peck’s face is so ashen it’s hard to know where he starts and his cigarettes begin. The trademark Joker laugh often feels a little excessive in the realism the film is aiming for but witnessing Phoenix chock back his incessant laughter is a tough watch.
The Killing Joke this is not but Joker is an interesting, if flawed look inside the mind of what could have created one of the most iconic villains of all time. Whether we needed such a psychological breakdown is a different riddle.