Joker: A Review
The fact that the film ‘Joker’ lacks a definite article irks me. I am told by Batman fans that this is because this is not ‘THE’ Joker but merely ‘A’ Joker, ie. the film is non-canonical. I don’t care. I’ve never liked Batman. For me Batman has always been the villain of the piece, a billionaire whose wealth is the direct cause of the poverty which contributes to the crime he violently and smugly crusades against. Whilst this film amplifies this argument and paints a slightly unflattering image of Batman’s father, it mostly keeps the Waynes at arm’s length; which is probably for the best. Instead we are following the titular Arthur Fleck, as played by Joaquin Phoenix who should receive much praise for his performance of the mentally ill would-be comedian. It makes for uncomfortable viewing and at times the mild clowning, floppy hair, open collars and brown jackets becomes a little too reminiscent of Robin Williams, whose death is still a wound in the comedy world, although this is probably more incidental than intentional.
As fantastic as Phoenix is as Fleck, he is upstaged throughout by the portrayal of Gotham City. The filthy streets lined with garbage and broken souls, the sheer anger and frustration of the residents, the harsh and brutal beauty of every scene is a work of art that is perhaps a little too close to home. The poverty and cuts to public services will strike a chord with many of those living in Austerity Britain and when the administrative axe falls to cut the Mental Health Services on which Fleck relies it acts as a damning indictment of how our own society has betrayed its most vulnerable members. What follows, it could be argued, is the inevitable result of that betrayal.
With the exception of two (or maybe three) key incidents, Arthur Fleck doesn’t do much, most of this film is about what happens to him, around him and in spite of him. The only thing Arthur adds to Gotham’s story is violence, quite extreme violence. It is no surprise that this violence has become a focal point for the film’s detractors, it is dark and bloody and it can certainly be argued that a 15 certificate was lenient. Violence is, however, an important part of the story and, as in our own society, the violence on the streets is a natural symptom of the equally violent act of cutting services and abandoning the poor and vulnerable. The two are intrinsically linked and Joker is an excellent demonstration of that fact.
The story moves at a nice pace and the changes in direction are sudden, sharp and uncomfortable without being jarring. With the exception of one particularly tedious reveal via flashback of something which had already been made obvious, the story is well told, even if Fleck does go from apolitical to political without much build up. The unclear nature of Fleck’s motivations in the film’s final act and the ambiguity of the last scene give the film an uncertainty which makes it far more interesting that most origin stories. Batman fans may be able to pick up the pieces and weave together the whys and wherefores but outsiders too can enjoy the mysterious journey into the depths of a broken mind that this film provides.