Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is an aspiring stand-up who earns a living as a clown in Gotham. Afflicted with a mental condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably, Arthur lives with his mother (Frances Conroy) and is routinely brutalised by the city around him. However, as the city slowly spirals out of control, so too does Arthur begin to lose his grip on his sanity...
Even before the early reviews began to load the cart on 'Joker', there was already a laundry list of issues being attached to it. For one, you had the fact that, historically, Joker has always been a character that works best not as someone with a full arc and an origin story but as a character who slips in and out of other people's stories, causing mayhem and chaos. In 'The Dark Knight', Christopher Nolan likened Joker to the shark from 'Jaws', and how while he was the central focus, he wasn't necessarily in need of a beginning, middle, or end because the film didn't require it.
'Joker' sets out to do the impossible, when you come right down to it. It wants you to sympathise with a character who has been previously portrayed as a mass-murdering terrorist, a gleefully evil psychopath, and, in one case, a heavily tattooed... goth? The point is, that no matter what, the character of Joker is always going to be interpreted differently. Joaquin Phoenix undoubtedly gives one of his most intense, physical and disturbing performances in the role. The way Todd Phillips shoves the camera right up in his face means you can't look away from any of it, and when the violence and mayhem begins, you know exactly where it's all stemming from.
Intriguingly, you get the sense from Phoenix's performance that he's not chosen to portray Joker a sympathetic character, even though the script wants you to see him that way. We see him being beaten, harassed, bullied by his co-workers, laughed at by the likes of Robert DeNiro's schmoozy TV host, and ignored by everyone around him - except his mother, with whom he shares a queasy, intimate bond. Yet, the way in which Phoenix plays him and the actions he takes means that there's almost a sense of inevitability to it all and that he himself is almost detached from it. Almost as if Gotham and the world deserve what he's doing.
It's when you start to pick at this that 'Joker' gets really disturbing, and when things begin to spin further out to engulf the whole city, there's a sense that the movie is leaning itself heavily into nihilistic territory. It's brutal stuff, and the manner in which violence takes off in 'Joker' is vicious and, again, disturbing. Todd Phillips' script with Scott Silver, together with the production design and cinematography, hammers home just how grim and desperate the world around the characters is, but beyond that, there's nothing else to it. It's not even about there being no redeemable characters in the story, save for maybe Zazie Beetz. How the script chooses to use all these characters simply becomes too much to process.
Still, in spite of all this, 'Joker' is buoyed almost entirely by Phoenix's performance - it really is that spectacular - and the boldness in how he tries to interpret one of the most recognisable characters in popular culture. The character of Joker is not treated with any kind of respect or reverence for its history, instead simply using it as a vehicle to tell a story that would never be made if it wasn't packaged inside something like this. It's relentlessly bleak, to the point of almost overpowering any kind of enjoyment of it all, but you still can't take your eyes off any of it.
'Joker' isn't perfect by any means, and it's not really trying to be. It's aiming for something much more authentic and real and it achieves that, for the most part. The promotion surrounding it practically invites comparisons to the likes of Martin Scorsese's 'The King of Comedy' or 'Taxi Driver', but there are curiously only a handful of scenes that take any kind of cue from those films, and, even then, they're so obvious as to be jarring. Likewise, dismissing this as a comic-book movie isn't fair either, as there is no gigantic CGI battle or intense fight sequence to ramp things up.
It moves fitfully, stumbling over itself every so often, and skittering towards its conclusion with all the frenzied energy bottled up inside Phoenix's portrayal. As twisted and violent a reimagining as you can possibly get, 'Joker' could point the way to future comic book adaptations - provided they're as bold as this one is.