Review: Joker laughs last with a pitch-black origins tale

by Shane Dillon

And so, at last, the most polarising film of the year has arrived, with Joker (Cert 16, 122 mins).

Director Todd Phillips’ take on the origins of the ‘Crown Prince of Chaos’ has garnered adulation and derision in largely equal measures, with standing ovations from some critics, and audience walk-outs at some screenings.

It’s been credited with offering an unsettling societal commentary on contemporary issues that I’m not quite convinced it merits, but viewers seem to be finding their own subtexts easily enough.

Long story short, Joker traces the development of the iconic, infamous psychopath – both Batman and Gotham City’s greatest foe – from being an utter nobody to a figurehead for terror and mayhem.

There’s one hell of a rise here – or fall, depending on your point of view – as generally mild-mannered loner Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) takes one beating after another from life, until something inside this fragile man snaps, unleashing a terrifying alter ego.

As the film unwinds, there’s increasingly less and less of Arthur left, until by the end, somewhat inevitably, only Joker is left – a creature for whom wanton violence and anarchy is an entertaining joke, with death (of other people, of course) the ultimate punchline.

As a period piece set in the world’s most famous fictional city, this presumed early 1980s-set film smears civil unrest and a breakdown of societal order through most of its frames.

Gotham is at boiling point, with everything from City Hall corruption to garbage strikes distracting citizens in her filthy, graffiti-daubed streets.

It’s a perfect stomping ground for Arthur, scraping by with a lowly existence as a clown-for-hire, before scuttling back to his sickly mother at their decrepit apartment, with both transfixed by the always-on television.

Arthur dreams of becoming a hit comedian, just like his idol on TV, chat show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), but Arthur’s inept, unsettling routines, hampered by his mental illness that also triggers involuntary laughter, thwarts him from the start.

However, that laughter and his worsening mental illness is also the key to his eventual descent/rise to Joker, with his increasing bouts of extreme violence leaving him determined to have the last laugh, no matter the cost to him, Gotham or society …

At the heart of the film is Phoenix’s bravura performance, with a drastic weight loss seeing him breathe twitchy life into scrawny, haggard Arthur.

It’s a dream role that’s guaranteed to earn him awards glory, although many may balk at the film’s treatment of mental illness, and it’s hard not to feel that Joker’s psychopathic actions are being celebrated, rather than observed.

As such, Joker’s likely to sit on as many ‘Worst of 2019’ lists as ‘Best of’, but as a black-hearted flip side to the endless superhero films we’ve had in recent years, I thought it was fascinating.

With its often superb cinematography, a clinically effective soundtrack, and its occasional crossover into some classic Gotham lore, Joker’s end result is a grimly satisfying look at a dark character and subject matter that is anything but a laughing matter.

  • Verdict: 9/10

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