DRAMA; 2hr 1min

STARRING: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen

Mirror image: Phoenix

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.