Comic books are revisionary and some of the most beloved characters have undergone multiple back-stories. JOKER picks up the aesthetic of Nolen's world of the Dark Knight and winds the story back to the early 1980s to tell a new origin story of Batman's most villainous foe. It is also the first time that an adaptation has been created independently of the source material, with director Todd Philips new entry being an original script with no relation to the comics at all (aside from a few loose references).
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a mentally disturbed man whose view of the world is composed from the lack of humanity surrounding him. A life-long loner, he endures daily hardships. His mother is incapacitated and reliant on him, while others abuse his mild-mannered demeanour. He is ridiculed and beaten-up and finds himself in a perpetual state of despair and depression. He tells his inattentive psychologist that he has never been happy for a single day in his entire life. And so is the foundation for the new Joker's origin story, which is apologetically entrenched in nostalgia for the early films of Martin Scorsese.
JOKER is not without its flaws, of which there are many, and it's slow and meandering story will certainly test the patience of many unsuspecting viewers. If, however, you invest in Arthur's descent into madness you will walk away numbed by the film's dank and relentless pursuit of darkness. Phoenix serves up a stellar performance, which isn't the “best” portrayal by any means, but definitely aligns itself with Heath Ledger's interpretation. The Scorsese influences are less than subtle with Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy being major beacons for Philips' direction, a fact which he never skirts (observant viewers will see the references). Phoenix's turn is often clunky and uneven, feeling forced at times, and yet there is no escaping the effectiveness of his Travis Bickle-inspired spiral. It's uncomfortable to watch his character be proverbially spat-upon at every turn, and his madness is the stuff of nightmares. His emotional investment in Arthur is laudable and signifies a performance worthy of accolade.
Philips' steps into the drama-dome with unexpected ease and bares no resemblance to the director who gave us Road Trip, Old School and the Hangover Trilogy. He has recaptured the Scorsese atmosphere effectively and depicts Gotham City as the grimy and scum-riddled New York of old. The film looks amazing and maintains its textural quality throughout. The supporting cast includes Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz and Robert DeNiro who all give run-of-the-mill – albeit well measured - performances. DeNiro's presence feels tokenistic, as though Philips was fulfilling his Scorsese fantasy, however it's neither distracting or detracting.
Some major flaws of JOKER include heavy-handed plot-driving devices, most of which cannot be revealed without spoilers and glaring references to previous films (look out for Travis Bickle's military jacket and a very familiar ride in the backseat of a cop car). The amount of fan-service is gluttonous and does create a disconnection from the story, however, once you recognise a few nods, it's easy to glaze over the rest.
JOKER is a nasty, depraved and violent journey into the darkest recesses of the human mind. It occupies the same space as some lesser-known films like Tony (2009) Who's Watching Oliver (2018) and Chocolate Strawberry Vanilla (2013) and never offers the viewer a glimpse of light. Nor should it. This is the human Joker as opposed to the comic-book Joker and he is a product of the current political climate, serving as a cautionary marker for those who don't look out for others.