Director: Todd Phillips | Cert: 15 | Runtime: 2h 1m
There are some movie roles which are sacred; that should never be touched and instead watched with awe from the seat within the sanctity of the cinema. In 2008 Heath Ledger removed his clown mask to reveal his twisted and deranged supervillain, The Joker. His performance resulted in universal praise, an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and the provincial knighting as the king of the Clown Prince of Gotham.
Sadly, Ledger would never bask in the glow of adulation and success which stemmed from his ground-breaking performance. He died of an accidental drug overdose before The Dark Knight was released.
For over ten years, his defining chaotic performance has been deemed untouchable, unreachable and whilst Jared Leto followed with his interpretation of the Joker in 2016 with Suicide Squad, it failed to match Ledger’s voracity. In the ensuing years, critics and, indeed fans, wondered whether there would ever be an actor who could match or even surpass this most iconic presentation of the clown psychopath.
They now have their answer – Joaquin Phoenix.
It would be easy to state that Phoenix gives an electric and astonishing performance as Arthur Fleck (the Joker), but that would dilute the intricate dissection of his achievement. So, before we get to Joaquin Phoenix, it’s worth praising Joker’s director, Todd Phillips. The man famed for The Hangover Franchise and politically incorrect comedy in Hollywood has delivered a searing insight into the fragility of the human psyche.
Basing his story in 1981, Arthur Fleck is a professional clown living with his mother. His dream is to become a comedian and whilst harbouring an intense and – arguably – unhealthy fascination for Murray Franklin – a renowned talk show host – slowly begins to unravel. This is the simplistic version of events. There are numerous undertones which run throughout the 122 minutes of film.
Fragility, rejection, fear, anger, mental illness – Joker tackles each of the subtexts with surprising ease and complexity. And it is hard not to react. As the film begins, there is a feeling of impending doom. You already know the transformation that Arthur will take, and yet the route in which Phillip’s drives the character to head is truly shocking.
DC announced that Joker would be their first Batman movie to be R-rated, due to its violence and disturbing themes. As the plot unfolds, the violence isn’t what makes Joker uncomfortable. Arthur is a man who is socially inept. Navigating his tormented world with an almost childlike innocence that quickly and violently becomes corrupted by the misgivings and brutal nature of Gotham City.
His consistent and unforgiving plummet into the fractured and unforgivable world of crime, murder and revenge is vividly recognised. And that recognition falls solely at the feet at the man who has answered that continuous question be fans we mentioned earlier.
Joaquin Phoenix brings to the screen a Joker we have never seen before. All traces of previous interpretations, from Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson, Jared Leto, Mark Hamill to Cesar Romero are non-existent. In fact Phoenix claimed he never watched any other performance as reference in preparing for the role, and you can see why.
Throughout his prestigious career, Phoenix has given cinema some stellar performances. Whether it be Gladiator or Walk The Line, he seems at home with the more ‘damaged’ characters in Hollywood’s repertoire. Yet, Joker is arguably his defining moment. Quite simply, Joaquin Phoenix gives one of the most brutal, fearless and unhinged performances put on screen. In his intensity he matches Heath Ledger, and whilst he may not raise that bar, instead he has made his own.
As the movies builds to its insanity driven crescendo, you are left gasping for breath after what must be one of Hollywood’s most riveting and electric 15 minutes of film ever. The moment where Arthur gives way to the Joker, where morality manifests monster, where comedian is corrupted to killer clown, is an experience that no other Batman movie has ever offered or could achieve with such immense perfection.
Joker is a dark, twisted story which unapologetically delves into the deconstruction of the mind. It is a rip-roaring, terrifying look at the polarising nature of mental illness and its treatment. Joaquin Phoenix is the main attraction here, his performance begins with poignant fragility and sympathy, yet as Arthur disentangles from reality and all sense of reason, the sympathy converts to fear.
In 2008, Heath Ledger raised the bar on how far an actor can push their performance in a superhero movie. In 2019, Joaquin Phoenix has done something different. He has ripped up the rulebook, set it alight and gleefully watched the world of Gotham burn.