DRAMA; 2hr 1min
STARRING: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen
In the opening shot of the express trip to Crazy Town that is filmmaker Todd Phillips’s Joker, failed clown Arthur Fleck (Phoenix, rail-thin and seemingly ravaged from within) sits in a social worker’s nondescript office. Laughing hysterically in uncomfortable close-up, his face is contorted with a conflicting mix of what looks to be grief, amusement and fury.
Uncontrollable laughter, it’s explained in the following, unpleasant scene, is a condition from which Arthur suffers. As freaky and grating as that repeated experience is, it’s the least of his horrendous worries, for the Crazy Town of Phillips’s and co-screenwriter Scott Silver’s blistering origin story is beleaguered, DC Comics Gotham City, home to a seething multitude of malcontents for whom Arthur will become the twisted patron saint.
From his spat-out perspective, the world in which Arthur struggles to exist is malevolently ugly. He lives in a depressing apartment with his infirm mother, Penny (Conroy), enduring the sting of repeated humiliation on a regular basis, until—old, sad, inevitable story—he finally snaps. Meanwhile, as Arthur splinters into psychosis, fat cat Thomas Wayne (Cullen), Gotham mayoral candidate and father of Batman-to-be Bruce, is yet another thorn in his side. “I used to think my life was a tragedy,” Arthur concludes after absolutely everyone—revered tonight show host Murray Franklin (De Niro) included—has contrived to let him down. “But now I realise it’s a fucking comedy.”
Comedy, as Arthur himself later points out while losing it completely on TV, is a matter of individual taste. Hence his tragi-creepy clown persona as a weapon of destruction and a paltry shield. His Joker persona transports him to a profane illusion of glory. But the battle he’s fighting with years of abuse is scarred too deep to win.