Remember the Joker’s catchphrase from Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman – have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?
Well, this 2019 incarnation of the Clown Prince of Crime is one devil who just loves to dance.
He dances to old show tunes. He dances to music in his own head. He dances just for the heck of it. He dances to express his rage, his frustrations, sometimes even his hopefulness, and to invite us into his headspace.
Some of the time, he dances shirtless, and this is where star Joaquin Phoenix’s bones – he shed many pounds for the role, reportedly to the detriment of his well-being – appear to take on an identity all their own.
Physically, his character is difficult to look at while his mesmerising performance makes it just as hard to look away. (I’ve not felt more unsettled looking at someone lacing up his shoes than I did here.)
The overall effect of his near-cadaverous appearance, coupled with his deeply layered, strangely sympathetic turn as an iconic comic-book villain in a highly un-comic-book-like movie, is stunning.
Eschewing most previous Joker origin stories, the film introduces us to Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a struggling individual. Not struggling comedian, or struggling employee, or struggling, devoted son, nope. Just plain struggling.
Already broken (by what, we eventually learn as the film goes along) when we meet him, Arthur has been left with a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably when he is troubled. Yep, he only laughs when he hurts.
It is a pained laugh that is not just difficult to hear, but also speaks volumes about his internal anguish. It is one more element of Phoenix’s tour de force performance that invites us to ponder just what is going on behind those makeup-obscured eyes.
We may find fleeting but familiar glimpses of our own struggles, or those of people close to us. Or recognise some of the heartbreak, the yearning, the pain of bluntly dismissive remarks from the ones we look up to, or count on.
Those given to more introspective moments may even recognise our words and actions in the people around Arthur. Whether we identify with victim or victimiser, this feeling of familiarity combines effectively with the film’s own relevance to the societal fractures of 2019, despite its early 1980s setting.
This dangerously evokes a sense of empathy for a character whose CV, as any fan of the comics will tell you, includes “mass murderer”.
The story of Joker, however, is set well before he carved out that credit on his resume. It is inspired by the character’s beginnings as told in the acclaimed graphic novel The Killing Joke, by way of Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy.
And if you needed any further proof of those two cinematic influences, their star Robert De Niro is right here as well – ironically enough (and where The King Of Comedy connection comes in), playing a popular talk-show host whom Arthur idolises.
For a good deal of its running time, Joker seems to play fast and loose with what fans may hold sacrosanct. At one point, it even starts down a road that makes you want to shout curses at the screen, and at co-writer/director Todd Phillips.
Rest assured, however, that when all is stabbed and done, the film does not disrespect your ... um, fanhood.
It begins as a grim, grimy character study, with the story gradually taking shape around Arthur’s travails (and with his transformation come callbacks to great screen Jokers of the past, notably the Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger versions).
With most of the proceedings seen through his eyes, expect some twists and surprises that, increasingly, make us simultaneously sympathetic yet repulsed by Arthur’s actions.
But at this point, it seems all right to feel that way. After all, here, Arthur is just a guy sincerely trying to do what he believes is his calling in life. And, as life beats him down one crushing blow at a time, Joker seems to be inviting us to walk with Arthur and at least find common ground with his situation.
Make no mistake, though: it is ultimately about a descent into insanity.
The slow burn of Joker’s initial 80-odd minutes chronicle, in parallel, both Arthur and Gotham City’s downward spiral (this is a far more squalid and dismal Gotham than we’ve seen before) and show us just how entwined the two are – in a sense, setting up his future rivalry with Batman.
Then the whole powder keg is set off in staggering fashion, leaving us clutching the singed strands of our own expectations and wondering if, indeed, it just takes one bad day to bring our carefully curated worlds crashing down.
And we leave in a half daze, pondering the way Phillips and Phoenix harmonised so wonderfully to deliver a hypnotic, disturbing and challenging product that fairly transcends the genre, while remaining respectful towards it. And that’s no joke.
Director: Todd Phillips
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler