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Fears of a clown in Joker

03 October, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Joker

JOKER
Directed by Todd Phillips
Certificate 15
☆☆☆☆

IF the films we watch tell us something about the world we inhabit today, we may as well close the door and turn off the lights now.

This “origins” story about the background of one of Batman’s best-known enemies is so unremittingly grim, and so loaded with social comment as to almost be a mirror on the state of Western democracies, that perhaps it should be filed under satire.

This is an utterly nihilistic world and while apparently set in the 1980s, it is utterly about today.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is the carer for his ailing mother. During the day, he works for a clown agency, getting low-rent gigs such as helping advertise a shop’s closing down sale.

He has a neurological condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably at random times, and he is relentlessly bullied at work.

He does have dreams: a neighbour becomes the object of his affections, and an absent father figure peers at him from the TV in the shape of chat show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro).

The story unfolds in two ways: his mother is an ex-employee of Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen, a demagogue of high-flying, Trump-like capitalist meddlers with eyes on the Gotham mayorship) and writes to the industrialist frequently to beg for help. It provides a “how did he get to be like this?” strand.

Meanwhile, Arthur gets into an altercation on a train with three suited Wall Street roughnecks – and it kick-starts another storyline, including a citywide Occupy-like rebellion.

Look out for plenty of references to the state of the world today, from this angle to a gala screening of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, a clear flag of what Phillips is trying to do.

Phoenix is brilliant, even if the character’s manic state wears a little as the point is hammered home – we get it that he isn’t well. He has already shown his immense talent in movies such as You Were Never Really There and does so again with a stand-out performance, a study in physical acting: every sinew of his wiry frame comes grotesquely alive, as if the demons in his head are pulling tendons and limbs like a marionette operator.

Another minor grumble has to be that there is an element of the infantilisation of cinema. This is a back story to a superhero film aimed squarely at adults.

Yes, I get it that adults can love a superhero as much as a nipper, but it feels slightly off to have made something so dark.

And the portrayal of a man suffering from mental ill health is hardly subtle nor gentle. Maybe this is partly due to Phoenix’s stellar performance, but whatever it is, it’s deeply unpleasant and at times uncomfortable to watch.

But there can’t be a true cinephile out there who isn’t looking forward to seeing Phoenix’s Joker face-off with Batman at a future date.

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