Frank Sinatras 'That's Life' crackles through a dated 80’s television set as a mother and son slow dance by the grey light given off by the screen. The son here is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) a failing clown hounded by negative thoughts and depression who suffers from a mental illness which causes him to bursts into spontaneous crippling laughter. Presented as a symptom of the society which he lives, Fleck navigates his way down a twisting spiral of increasing madness to become Joker, a criminal molded from his neglect by those in Gotham city. The physical and mental beatings the character takes throughout the film eventually leads him to his well-known murderous conclusion, in which he becomes a symbol of rebellion in a city already drowning in chaos and riots.
The humanity that Phoenix brings to the role aids our understanding of the character, explaining why he becomes such an icon for the silenced lower classes of Gotham.
The fictional city of Gotham mirrors that of 1980’s gangster New York. The streets are bathing in trash due to a refuse strike to the point where you can practically smell the stench and garbage bags obscure most of the exterior scenes. The brown/deep red colour palette soaks the film in dark tones; all contributing to a very bleak aesthetic.
Stalking camera movements follow our protagonist Arthur (Joker) as Joaquin Phoenix waltzes in and out of scenes. This performance is truly one to behold as he manically dances faster and faster through the character’s journey. Led by his skeletal appearance, he contorts himself abusing his physicality to portray Fleck’s internal turmoil. While bold movements rule, his boyish voice elicits pity from the audience only cut by his bitter laugh which halts momentum to his speech. The humanity that Phoenix brings to the role aids our understanding of the character, explaining why he becomes such an icon for the silenced lower classes of Gotham.
This was a film that certainly was surrounded by hype, however equally haunted by controversy stirring up uncomfortable yet necessary conversations about violence in cinema. There were scenes that flicked between slap-stick and outright bloody violence the contrast heightening the sickening feeling at who this character is really becoming.
I see this film as one stuck in limbo, it a superhero film but it’s not. It’s grounded in realism yet we live out Joker’s fantasies. The director twists the lines between social justice and vigilante killings. It's truly divided a genre as much as it's divided critics.
I enjoyed Joker as a crazed psychopath who I loved to hate, now I know his story I can’t hate a man who is a result of this world that created him. Therefore as a stand-alone film, excellent; where it fits into the bigger picture or into the DC comic book universe is not clear. All I know is to remember to keep smiling.