The lifecycle of the latest take on the Joker, Batman’s iconic foe, has not been straightforward. The project has been circulating for the best part of 5-6 years with director Martin Scorsese and Leonardo Dicaprio initially attached. Joker has eventually ended up being helmed by Hangover trilogy director Todd Phillips, an odd choice to be paired with Joaquin Phoenix, the acclaimed star of Walk the Line and You Were Never Really Here.
The film is styled as an ode to Scorsese’s classics Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy – the latter of which is alluded to in the casting of Robert De Niro in the role of a talk show host. In Joker, Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is obsessed with the talk show, and harbours dreams of one day appearing on it. One of the criticisms Joker has drawn is that it wears influences too heavily. While there are clear visual nods to Taxi Driver, Joker is able to stand on its own two feet and exist on its own merits.
The standout of the film is without doubt Phoenix, who had the arduous task of following in Heath Ledger’s footsteps which, in The Dark Knight, brought the character to the screen in a way we had never seen before. Phoenix’s Joker largely stands apart from Ledger’s chaotic incarnation; it feels like a split between all the previous versions of the character, with several key additions to the character’s mythos. One significant alteration to the backstory concerns a brain injury Arthur suffered as a child. Arthur experiences sudden and prolonged fits of laughter which don’t necessarily reflect his moods, these can often be quite chilling and Phoenix delivers them in an incredible manner. His Joker is a man unwell and misunderstood by those around him. Over the course of the film, the character undergoes an incredible transformation, as his world unravels and he becomes increasingly isolated. Phoenix is dynamite on the screen, whether he is uncontrollably laughing, scared or randomly dancing: he is fully committed to the role and the sea of emotions that come with it.
Joker’s score, composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir, brings an incredible sense of dread to Gotham, a city that has torn itself apart with riots in its streets. The film’s choice of non-original music is also a strength with plenty of jazz standards as well as 60s-70s rock songs. Sinatra’s “That’s Life” plays multiple times throughout the film and will, for many, redefine the way the song is perceived in future. The one controversy amongst the film’s music choices is the use of Gary Glitter – the convicted paedophile will earn large amounts of money from the film’s royalties.
Joker is a fantastic effort to redefine an iconic character, standing mostly separate from previous incarnations while incorporating familiar elements. It includes an exceptional lead performance as well as some great support work. It features one of De Niro’s best performances in years (admittedly a faint compliment), certainly since Silver Linings Playbook. It’ll be interesting to see if studios decide to reimagine other Marvel and DC characters in the same way as there is clearly an appetite for this sort of move away from the source material.
Image: Warner Bros.