Joker at Venezia 76: A sinister, brutal masterclass

Joker, probably the least likely franchise film to exist, let alone succeed, has become the toast of the 76th Venice film festival. Read that sentence again if you need to. A Joker origins story, directed by the man who directed The Hangover and nothing really else, is not only playing In Competition at the world’s oldest film festival but has become the indisputable highlight of the programme so far. No other piece of work has received a standing ovation at a press screening on the Lido – nobody involved in the film was there to hear it – but Joker is just such an intense, titanic achievement that you can’t help but burst into rapturous applause by the time the whole thing’s over.

Rest assured, this is in no way an incel fantasia, nor is it the hive of eye-rolling ‘social commentary’ that many had predicted. Instead, it’s Taxi Driver by way of Repulsion and The King of Comedy – exploring the way in which people ignore and fail to understand outcasts on the edge of society; the manner in which the 1% always make the first cuts to the people who needed the most resources and then blame them for the fallout those cuts cause. Most relevantly to the current climate, it’s about what happens when those most disenfranchised (here referred to as ‘clowns’, although that may as well be ‘the deplorables’, ‘minorities’, or ‘brexiteers’) snap with devastating consequences.

It is, as you probably guessed by that description, the furthest a superhero movie has ever come from being a superhero movie. Even Logan, a glorified Western, featured supernatural powers – here, aside from the relation to Batman and references to the concepts of that world (mercifully minimised in the story) there’s nothing to even suggest that comic books were involved at all. There’s not, believe it or not, even a DC logo. No, Todd Phillips is in full old-skool, vicious crime mode, which is precisely what makes Joker so absolutely thrilling to behold. It is nothing like The Hangover.

Like De Niro’s Travis Bickle, Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is a man out of step with life. He’s lonely, and can’t quite master the alchemy of interpersonal relationships. Like Phoenix’s own character in You Were Never Really Here, Fleck lives with his mother and draws most of his strength from her presence. He is not, in any way, a bad man – though a conversation with his counsellor (played beautifully here by Sharon Washington) reveals that he’s deeply damaged. “I’ve never been happy for a single second my whole fucking life” he mutters during one of their increasingly tense sessions.

Fleck, you see, has a mental illness that makes him prone to bouts of uncontrollable, loud laughter at the worst possible moments. If he has the time and energy, he carries a tattered laminated card that explains this to offended citizens on the street; if he’s not quick enough, he’ll get beaten on the sidewalk or shouted down on the bus. One suspects that the laughter is just one line in a list of problems that Fleck suffers.

Arthur has a dream – he longs to be a stand-up comedian and idolises late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (De Niro) who he watches almost religiously. Unfortunately, though, he’s currently stuck in a dead-end job working as a clown entertainer in children’s hospitals and on the street, trying to attract tired punters to failing stores. As the film opens, he’s doing just that, before a group of kids steal his sign and brutally assault him in a back alleyway.

That destructive event marks the start of Fleck’s decline – one that could’ve easily been prevented if the proper mechanisms had been in place to detect his vulnerability in the first place. Fleck’s colleague, the slippery father figure Randall (Glenn Fleshler) gives him a gun to protect himself. Despite the fact that Fleck is deeply unwell, on 7 different psychological medications, and cannot legally own a firearm, Randall convinces him that one is necessary. His boss, Hoyt (Josh Pais) makes it clear that he’s not liked in the office, and that his time at the company is limited. Government cuts close down his therapy centre and pharmacy, cutting off his psychological support. A negative incident involving his idol shreds his dream of a comedy career in front of his eyes. Suicide looms around every corner.

One evening, Fleck is assaulted by three drunk men on the tube – three men who happen to be wealthy. This time, however, he’s irritated and primed to fight back – something he does instinctively and almost acceptably, although the incident quickly morphs into something more sinister and sadistic. You can see the look in Phoenix’s eyes change as his brain chemistry undergoes the permanent alterations that transform him into the unhinged presence we already know. From this moment on, it’s probably best not to say more about the plot, but suffice to say that Joker is a breathless, screaming free-fall of a film that plunges us straight into the psyche of a fracturing mind.

This film is dark. Like, not Suicide Squad dark or even Watchmen dark, but slowly going mad in a claustrophobic, pitch-black cave as thousands of people ignore you dark. Maybe dark isn’t even the right word…. Joker is above all sinister. It exudes a possessive, foreboding energy that chimes with the fears of these times. We have forgotten the mentally ill; the poor; the disadvantaged. We have cut legal aid and the NHS budget and the emergency services whilst we spend frivolously on things which only benefit those not in need. We are in the midst of what could be termed a Western working class revolution, and although its causes and effects are far more complicated than we should go into in a Joker review, we can see that that apathy and those policies have led to very tangible, awful consequences. Europe is fracturing; racism is flourishing; the age we are going through is being compared to the Weimar Republic. Arthur Fleck may be a comic book character, but he’s able to mythologically represent something far more insidiously real.

As it goes on, too, Phillips makes Joker increasingly unhinged and violent. For UK readers, there’s no way this will manage to pass the BBFC with anything other than an 18 certificate (the only analogue I can think of is Watchmen, which is less impactfully gory than this), and some of the content is genuinely, gasp-inducingly brutal. The film has a remarkable strength of tone – only reaching for comedy at a handful of moments, and shooting straight down the barrel of sinister intensity that a relentlessly accelerates until it finally strikes its fleshy target. Kudos to Warner Brothers for letting this thing reach screens in the untamed, visceral form that it has.

I’m going to come right out here and say it: Joaquin Phoenix is the best rendition of the Joker we have ever seen. A master actor – perhaps the greatest in the industry at the moment, or at least in its highest echelons – he throws himself into the role with almost supernatural force. Losing a ridiculous amount of weight to appear malnourished and hunched, this is a performance that relies heavily on the physicality of the character. We believe in this laughing condition, which presumably doesn’t exist, because Phoenix plays it so effectively – it’s never just a laugh, there’s always an underlying sadness, and usually more than a hint of tears in that expressive face. Hunched over and gaunt, though dangerously strong, Fleck lumbers through life in a way that tells us more about his story and the people around him than the script ever could. Even at Venice, where we’ve seen an all-timer of a performance from Adam Driver in Marriage Story, Phoenix’s is maybe the highlight.

Lawrence Sher’s 70mm cinematography radiates retro blues and oranges, focusing on expressionistic details like flickering lights and shadows in a way that occasionally evokes the exaggerated presentation on 30’s noir. For once, this is a movie set in the 80’s that genuinely feels like it could’ve been made in the 80’s – to be honest, it’s not so hard to imagine Scorsese in the directors chair. A retro, but not gaudy, period score accentuates the setting and also the melancholy feel of much of the script.

This is an obscenely expensive, franchise-leaning film that has the feel of a modern indie and a late-20th-Century crime epic all at once – it is absolutely glorious. It’s political, ill-advised and violent. It is shocking, adult, and quite possibly irresponsible. And yet, it all completely works.

By it’s ending, in which it brutally states its misanthropic thesis with the energy of a bullet to the head, Joker had me slick with sweat, gripping the armrests, and too drained to watch the film I was supposed to see an hour later. It may be, perhaps, the most unlikely critical success of 2019, but it is undoubtedly one of the best comic book movies ever made, and a triumph of the modern studio system. If Warner Brothers can fund tentpole films with this much raw, artistic integrity and make a return on them (let’s be honest, Joker is gonna make a shit ton of money), then maybe the commercial industry isn’t in such a bad place after all.

You can’t help but applaud, even if nobody is listening.


James is a postgraduate law student at LSE, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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