Controversy surrounded Joker at just about every stage of its production. When it was announced that Warner Bros were developing an origin story set apart from any DC cinematic universe and directed by Todd Phillips, a man most famous for the Hangover trilogy, it certainly didn’t put a smile on everyone’s face. Best described as a character study, the film attempts to dissect the life of an introspective man mocked by society and shunned by his idols, a man who thrives in the shadows of his own reclusiveness. And though this is Gotham City and a world in which the Waynes exist, Phillips firmly lets us know that there are no heroes in this story. Because Joker is not a comic book movie.
Like Nightcrawler, Taxi Driver and I, Daniel Blake before it, Joker holds up a lens to the disturbing and merciless world we inhabit, in many ways a commentary on the material excess and artificiality introduced by social stratification. Arthur is oppressed in just about every way possible, his infectious laugh (quite literally) exposes and isolates him in public, forcing him to intrude into uncomfortable social situations that make you sympathise with a man longing to shut himself away but denied by his own body. This is all credit to Joaquin Phoenix, portraying Arthur as a tortured soul on a journey of self discovery, whose laughter exhibits a combination of pain and anguish that wildly separates him from Heath Ledger’s nihilistic anarchist. Joker is a film about finding purpose, and for Arthur this starts with the epiphany that he not only exists but has some degree of power over others, a revelation which catalyses his transformation. Phoenix imbues Arthur with compelling confliction, in many ways wrestling with the mould assigned to him by societal norms and the identity which liberates him from his woes. At no point will you resent Arthur for his choices, and though you may not endorse it, you cannot help but understand the dark place where his motivations formed.
Shot with intimate close ups and in claustrophobic settings, the cinematography imposes on Arthur’s world, a world in which he exists alone and we as viewers are made to feel uncomfortably intrusive. But our intrusion is punished by Arthur’s unreliable narration, at several points realising that his lack of medication is impeding the truth of the narrative. Part of the film’s triumph is revelling in Arthur’s embracing of his transcendental identity, off his meds and no longer disturbed by his laughing condition, and so it all contributes to the ideological mindset we are delving into.
For all the praise and acclaim Joker has rightly earned, it isn’t without its faults. It is a film that doesn’t know how, or rather when, to end. Several moments that would have served as the perfect point to conclude then gave way to less effective scenes which, without spoiling, threatened to undermine Arthur’s story in favour of being faithful to the Gotham legacy we are all familiar with. The realism of Arthur’s journey feels ever so slightly forced when it decides to tease that mythology at the expense of Joker’s awakening. Nonetheless it is not detrimental to the film’s overall power. This slow, meticulous analysis of the human psyche and social rejection brings something Shakespearean to our screens, and despite whatever skepticism haunted it’s production, Joker will certainly be having the last laugh.