The Joker has been so often and so prominently interpreted for the screen that the character, inarguably more so than the brooding vigilante with whom he has combated since the debut Batman comic in 1940, has entered what could perhaps best be described as a cultural public domain. Joaquin Phoenix, a man who has already demonstrated a preternatural interest in an acting challenge, is the latest to decipher the indecipherable Clown Prince of Crime.
There’s a tangible myth to The Joker that is perpetuated and endorsed by public enthusiasm. It has and will ensure the character’s survival beyond each actor who has inhabited him. Like James Bond or Tarzan or now even Mad Max, the character dictates as much as the actor, each interpretation of the Joker belongs as much to the others as it does to itself. The hope with performance relays such as these is that each actor will bring something innovative to the role. That is certainly the case, to varying degrees of success, with The Joker.
Heath Ledger understood that the Joker is an extraordinary man. Phoenix understands that a Joker existing outside of cultural pulp would be frightening unstable. There is none of the perversely appealing logic of Ledger in The Dark Knight or the lavish energy of Hamill in the animated series or the fun eccentricities of Nicholson in Tim Burton’s Batman. This Joker is wholly unsettling and entirely unappealing.
It’s 1981 and Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally ill loner who lives with his mother and works as a budget clown commissioned with such tasks as sign waving outside budget stores and entertaining sick children in hospital. Fleck dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian but his extreme behaviour – and the sad truth that he simply isn’t funny – render this an obvious impossibility to everyone except himself.
We have always known that The Joker is mentally unstable. Joker is the first film to bring that instability to the fore. It is also the first film in which the Joker is not fun. Whether that is an indictment on this or previous Joker interpretations is a discussion for which a brief film review is too restrictive.
Much has been made of whether this film will incite emulated violence but equally concerning is Phillips’ approach toward mental illness. It is portrayed here as something other than normal, regardless of how much sympathy we are meant to feel for Fleck. Not suffering from crippling mental illness, I can’t speculate as to how someone who is would feel about Phillip’s sleight of hand in regard to this film’s attitudes toward people living on the fringe because of their own mind.
Phillips is an asset and a burden. Joker is undeniably a singular experience for a film derived from a comic book and there is a conviction to Phillips’ direction that serves his artistic ambitions well. It is best when Phillips is painting in broad strokes. But the film, also written by Phillips with Scott Silver, falters in the smaller moments that incite consideration with which Joker can’t satisfyingly engage.
Phoenix is another asset. He is the asset. His performance here would have been a remarkable achievement even if Heath Ledger hadn’t already played the character so extraordinarily. It is no mean feat that Phoenix, entirely shunning any idiosyncrasies that made Ledger’s performance so powerful, has established his own interpretation of the Joker as necessary as it is.
Joker strikes an uncomfortable chord that occupies a space well beyond the comic book stratasphere, far closer to reality than any previous Batman film. One of the most painful things for the Joker is surely that, at the end of the day, he simply isn’t funny. Phillips and Phoenix grab onto this with fierce enthusiasm and squeeze until we are swallowed by a difficult space both real and surreal.