Breaking up the run of London Film Festival titles, Joker is a new film from Todd Phillips and has been anticipated for a while, since it departs from the now usual super-hero “universe” fare. This is a film that takes place in the Gotham City of Batman – we get an origin story of sorts for Batman here – but is really about the origins of his biggest villain, the Joker.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a professional clown who gets hired for gigs like promoting a closing down sale or playing a ward of sick children in a hospital. He loves in a downbeat apartment with his elderly mother (Frances Conroy) who he cares for. She, we learn, once worked for Thomas Wayne (father of Bruce). Fleck is also on a programme to receive help for his conditions, but the government is cutting funding. He will no longer be on his medications.
Fleck’s ambition is to become a stand-up comic, and he idolises Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) who has a nightly chat show that he imagines himself appearing on. But he has a condition that sees him uncontrollably laugh when he experiences any kind of discomfort or pressure. And his sense of humour is “off.” There’s a scene of him sitting in a comedy club with a notepad watching other comedians perform and trying to learn from them. He laughs when others don’t; then when everyone else is laughing, he isn’t. He forces himself to laugh at the right times, but it’s an act.
The Gotham of Joker is a very 1970s New York. The film looks back to gritty films of the era like Taxi Driver, and quite explicably, King of Comedy. Indeed – there’s a direct line between De Niro as Rupert Pupkin in that film to his Murray Franklin in this. The film also recognises the Joker from The Killing Joke, the 1988 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland that also explored an origin story of the Joker. The failed stand-up comic storyline runs through that story too, and Bolland gets a thank-you credit here (Alan Moore famously doesn’t work with film versions of his work, and keeps his name off them).
There’s a city-wide garbage strike, and that means that a grim city is even grimmer as the rats run amok and law and order breaks down.
But while there’s a lot of looking back in the film, a larger theme is the “them and us” nature of money. Wealth inequality is much more a 21st century issue than a 1970s/80s one – in that it’s much worse today.
Interestingly, that leads a denouement which invokes civil unrest. As this film was opening, in Hong Kong, where there have been protests for months now about issues related to Chinese rule on the territory, the latest ban has been against wearing masks. Art imitates life in this film in relation to that, although you could easily look back to another Alan Moore graphic novel (and film), V for Vendetta from early 80s. That too uses the mask to anonymise subversion, with the version of the mask used in the 2005 film being adopted by groups globally.
Phoenix is excellent as Joker, with his body contorting to take-on this characterisation. You really can believe that he’s spiralling out of control and inhabiting this new persona.
I can’t finish without mentioning Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score which is terrific – using strained cello strings to portray Joker’s crumbling into madness. I’ve been listening non-stop ever since.