Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a down on his luck loner, currently taking seven different kinds of medication and living with his frail old mother (Frances Conroe). Arthur fantasises about living a ‘normal’ life, with hopes of becoming a stand up comedian and dating his next door neighbour, and the lines between reality and fantasy begin to become just as blurred for us during the movie as they do within Arthur’s mind.
We’re in Gotham City during the early eighties. A garbage strike means that the city is currently suffering from a build up of garbage on the streets and the subsequent arrival of ‘super rats’. The rich are getting richer, the poor and the underprivileged even worse off. And, at the forefront of all the wealth and power in the city is Thomas Wayne, who is currently looking to run for mayor. There is growing divide and unrest throughout Gotham, all of which serves to add fuel to the increasingly unstable mind of Arthur Fleck.
We’ve had our fair share of Joker portrayals over the decades, the most memorable of which being in 2008, and Heath Ledger’s brilliant take on the character in The Dark Knight. But Joaquin Phoenix brings a side to the Joker we’ve not experienced before – all skin and bone, abused, downtrodden, ridiculed and with a neurological condition that sees him suddenly laughing maniacally and uncontrollably, even during times of stress or sadness. Throughout the movie, we learn that Arthur also had a pretty unpleasant childhood and, for a while, you really can sympathise with him and the suffering he experiences. “I just don’t want to feel so bad any more” he says at one point.
Joker features no CGI, no costumed antics (other than the clowned kind), or any of the traditional comic book movie themes that we’re now so used to seeing. Instead, Joker treats us to more of a slow-burn character study, one mans slow descent into madness, and the birth of one of the most iconic villains of all time. Joaquin Phoenix is incredible in the role, supported by an outstanding cast, including Robert De Niro as a late night talk show host idolised by Arthur and Zazie Beets as the neighbour Arthur becomes obsessed with.
Joker isn’t exactly enjoyable in the traditional sense, uncomfortable at times and a brutally honest depiction of extreme mental health issues. But it’s beautifully shot, subtly weaving itself into the familiar DC universe while remaining unique and original. I was gripped from start to finish and I just hope that the upcoming Robert Pattison incarnation of The Batman fits into the universe and style that has been introduced here within Joker.