Joaquin Phoenix is Arthur Fleck, a clown for hire trying to make it as a stand up comedian in Gotham. As he tries to live his life a series of events will lead him to become the Joker.
The announcement of Joker coming shortly after Jared Leto’s take in Suicide Squad was met with confusion and trepidation. However Todd Phillips along with his co-writer Scott Silver and leading man Joaquin Phoenix have managed to recreate an iconic character into this grounded narrative.
Donning the makeup as a rent-a-clown, a single tear rolls down his cheek whilst he forces himself to look happy. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) prepares himself for a day of spinning a sign around and dancing in the street, advertising a store going out of business. It’s here where he’s jumped by a bunch of kids, beaten up and has his sign smashed in his face. This sets an early tone for the type of life Arthur has. He’s a downbeat character, whose life always seems to have been difficult, getting to grips with everyday behaviour and people isn’t something that comes easy to him. The fact that he has a condition to laugh uncontrollably and has to carry around a card to explain this to strangers doesn’t make it easier.
Playing him with his usual seemingly effortless acting, Phoenix easily embodies the disturbed and odd behaviours of Arthur / Joker as he’s navigated by Phillips who clearly has a lot of affection for this villainous character. He is after all a villain, make no mistake. As the Joker, Phoenix crafted an evil and creepy laugh which doesn’t sound like the ones we’ve heard before, just like his portrayal, it’s all new and all original. As we discover more about Arthur, we find out that he lives with his mother, he wants to be a stand up comedian, he loves being a clown. However there is something consistently unsettling about him and his behaviour, it’s unusual and hard to pin point but his mannerisms are that of someone who is trying to fit in rather than that of a person who naturally slots into society, it’s as if he’s copying to be the same. He brings a physicality to the performance as he hunches over, carrying the weight of the world. Phoenix lost a lot of weight for the role and you can see it particularly when his bones are almost poking out of him as shadows loom above.
This is a slow burn character study in the mind of an already disturbed man. As the clown mask becomes a figure for the dispossessed masses of Gotham, it feels like a modern point to bring up despite the fact that the film is set in 1981. It owes a debt to The King of Comedy which it clearly takes inspiration from thanks to Robert De Niro’s Murray Franklin, host of a talk show. He is the Jerry Langford of Joker as he unwittingly encourages Arthur. The twisted nature of Rupert Pupkin is a clear inspiration for Arthur as he struggles to understand how other people act and begins to feel ignored. Zazie Beetz brings humanity to his madness as his neighbour and Frances Conroy’s Penny Fleck portrays his unhinged mother with ease.
The theme of the film is to put on a happy face. Smile and the world smiles with you. It’s something Arthur is told by his mother and which he repeats throughout the film. Philips and Silver have both managed to craft a story in which we see someone’s pain no matter how much they smile. Their collaboration once again proves Phoenix is no joke.
5 out of 5.