The Handbook
The Handbook

Having snatched up a wildly impressive eight minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival back in August, and effortlessly gnawing first prize, it felt as though Todd Phillip’s Joker was headed for a critical home run. But, to say Joker has received mixed reviews since would be a slight understatement. While some critics argue Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Joker abruptly glamourises gun crime and demonises mental health problems, others champion his honest performance without much fault.

Whether you’re a superhero fan or not, Joker certainly strays away from its character origins and delves into a fragile side to the Joker we’ve never witnessed before. Perhaps more widely known for his comedic works (The Hangover and War Dogs), the film saw Phillips take on a new role and dives headfirst into a psychological thriller. Quite a gutsy move if you ask me.

If you’re looking for your generic comic book style film, with a championing superhero who strives to save the day, Joker probably isn’t going to tick those boxes. It does, however, shed a wide-eyed light on the deeper psychological issues and political traumas faced by marginalised communities living within 1980’s New York (even if it is set in fictional ‘Gotham’).

With the release of IT Chapter Two just last month, there seems to be a surge in terrifying clowns haunting our screens. But, Joker casts astray from the terrorising Pennywise, underlining the devastating reality of making ends meet in a deeply flawed capitalist society. Party clown Arthur Fleck is mocked and terrorised for his neurological disorder that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate times, and is constantly ridiculed for living with his mother, Penny, in Gotham City. Gotham itself is reeking with crime and unemployment, resulting in a community of impoverishment. It’s a community which Thomas Wayne (yep, it’s Batman’s dad) is running for mayor to help, or so he says, tackle unemployment.

When you think of the Joker and his previous portrayals, your thoughts are cast to his fragmented and villainous nature. You think of Heath Ledger, in The Dark Knight, blowing up a hospital. Or God forbids, Jared Leto, and his crime on fashion (and face tattoos). But, when watching Joker, his traumatic upbringing and unstable mental health are cast adrift to the forefront of your mind. Despite being shrouded as a villain in so many comic books, films and characterisations, it’s in this present characterisation that Joker becomes humanised, and if I’m being honest, it’s a daunting reality. For me, Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal is faultless and immensely captivating.

Visually, the film takes inspiration from Martin Scorsese classics, such as Taxi Driver and also The King of Comedy. Even, the casting of Robert DeNiro to drive that message closer to home. DeNiro plays an old-timey talk show host, reminiscent of Jay Leno, and he shows that in a past life he could have easily been a TV comedian. However, it is Joaquin Phoenix who steals every scene. And luckily for us, he is not only in every scene, but in nearly every single shot. Having lost a lot of weight for the role, his skeletal body contorts and unnaturally bends as he sways and dances his way through the movie. His iteration of the Joker is shy and frail, a shark contrast to the cartoonish and loud laughing clown we grew to hate growing up. As the film unravels, and his actions become more and more unforgivable, you start to wish that you could jump into the screen and stop him before its too late. But alas, a happy ending was never going to be on the cards for the infamous ‘Mistah Jay’.

For Batman fans, don’t fret, as the story is littered with easter eggs and cameos and personally I hope we see more from this universe so we can have this Joker face head to head with a grown up Batman. It might not be a film for everyone, but all I can say is that I entered with little expectation but left being moved by a deeply personal story filled with political allegories and gripping scenes. One to watch just for the spellbinding performance of Joaquin Phoenix alone.

Catch Joker in cinemas now, if you dare…

Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures