FOR once, you can believe the hype.
In the crosshairs of the media for its unforgiving violence, director Todd Phillips’ Joker is a sad, brutally graphic, politically charged, unpalatable masterpiece.
If you’re expecting anything near to a Joker you’ve seen before, you’d better brace yourselves — and certainly do not take the kids. It’s 1981 in Gotham City and Arthur Fleck (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is a failed clown and comedian suffering from serious mental illness.
Gotham is overrun with vermin — the binmen are on strike — and its polarisation of class and wealth is never more obvious.
Despite being diagnosed, Fleck cannot find anyone to help — the social care system has collapsed and his prescription medication has run out. He
loses his job and becomes fixated on becoming a comedian — he suffers from the Pseudobulbar affect, a condition causing uncontroll-able, inappropriate laughter.
Having to care for his ailing mum fans the flames. As resentment among Gotham’s citizens builds, a chain of tragic and violent events unfurls and Arthur’s descent towards his alter ego is inevitable — offering people their martyr and champion.
It’s this element — the lone wolf, obviously mad yet seen as a beacon for others — that is clearly inflammatory. And that criticism is not without merit.
True, to many of the maligned and unhinged, the Joker has always been the ultimate anti-hero. Stylish, marching to the beat of his own drum, seeking revenge anywhere he wants.
Yet, while it is terrifyingly bloody and uncomfortably real, rather than worry about whether this will encourage copycat Jokers — the argument Grand Theft Auto and Marilyn Manson know only too well — we should worry more that we already live in this supposed fictional environment that could create him at the drop of a hat.
Joker shows us a class war — an attack on the social system, on public shaming, on mental health, on violence, on everything grim in the world. And Gotham is just a construct — it may as well be Bolton or Hong Kong.
Phoenix’s take on the clown is like nothing you’ve seen before. His Joker is incapable of empathising with humans — he doesn’t understand what makes people laugh.
Other versions have hinted at darkness behind the mask, yet he plays it like a possessed Marcel Marceau and you cannot take your eyes off him.
It is a flawless, physical, terrifying performance.
But as a viewer you’re never sure whose eyes you’re seeing the world through. Is it Arthur’s? Or his mother’s? Just when you think you’ve sussed it, thinking there’s room for optimism — it’s crushed.
It’s a nasty, horrible view of the world and offers absolutely no hope. You will walk out feeling miserable — but film isn’t here to pretend that everything in the world is simply OK.
Occasionally, we do all need reminding just how much of a knife-edge we’re all living on. Incredible movie.
Joker (15) 122mins
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