VENICE – Once again Joaquin Phoenix has blown us all away with his umpteenth gong-worthy performance. At this point, after winning here in Venice alongside his co-star Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master and at Cannes for You Were Never Really Here, festivals might just have to automatically hand over the best actor award to him directly when he’s in competition. And the film? You might not be that into the whole DC Comics universe and you might have had it up to your back teeth with origin stories (I fall into both camps), but under no circumstances should you miss this film and this performance.
Let’s take a look at that backstory. The film opens with Gotham in thrall to a garbage crisis and visually there is much about Gotham that recalls mid-70s New York, with the sense of decay not just of the trash but of the city’s crumbling and dissipated society. Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) lives with his ageing and invalid mother Penny (Frances Conroy) in a loving relationship and in a grotty apartment to boot. Mum is always writing letters to Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) Fleck is a clown by trade and makes his living in hospital wards and on the streets of Gotham.
It is on the latter that he suffers a severe beating and humiliation which kick starts his speedy descent into madness and violence (no spoiler, this, if you’ve seen the trailer), though his humiliations have been many. Arthur’s dream is to be a stand-up comedian. His mother’s nickname for him is Happy and she insists that he was brought into this world to make people happy. Together they snuggle up to watch The Murray Franklin Show. Franklin (Robert De Niro) is a Johnny Carson/David Letterman type whose catch phrase is ‘That’s life’ and whose show ends with the Frank Sinatra song of the same name. Franklin and his show are a thread running through the film, right until the shocking end.
As for the director Todd Phillips, I have to say that after films like The Hangover trilogy I really did not see this coming. The trailers gave out a promise of something good, but I was not expecting it to be this good. Much of its greatness is in the central performance, of course. But Phillips, who co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver (The Fighter, 8 Mile), has created a Gotham that is very recognisable and is ripe (or maybe, given all that trash, overripe) for the social upheaval on the horizon. As we watch the protests in Hong Kong and demonstrations in London, 1970s Gotham looks very contemporary. That is despite the obvious references to the past. (In a nice touch, the Warner Brothers logo from 1972.) Some might argue that the film is too linear and that more could have been made of the social context behind the troubled city, but that isn’t really necessary for Gotham is all our cities and its angry put-upon citizens are us.
So instead, Phillips zooms in on Fleck and stays with him throughout. And with an actor like Joaquin Phoenix, why do otherwise? As well as looking great, the film sounds amazing. That’s thanks to Hildur Guonadottir’s magnificent score, which is heavy on the cellos and literally makes your seat shudder. Her music is accompanied by a great soundtrack, though there is one issue I had with it. Gary Glitter, once a giant of British pop music, makes a brief musical appearance here though his work has long been off the airwaves due to Glitter’s conviction for a sickening series of child sex offences.
Did Phillips make the choice to mark Fleck’s arrival as a villain or was it simply that the musician’s rap sheet was not important, the song suiting the scene so well? This song aside, the rest of the soundtrack is a scorcher. Todd Phillips takes us on quite a ride, one that is far more frightening and more engrossing than we expected, but also less comic book and more human. While there are nods to previous DC films, most notably the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents (for that reference, see Tim Burton’s Batman), this is very much a standalone movie that can be watched regardless of your affinity with the Batman universe. And watch it you must, for this performance by Joaquin Phoenix is unmissable.
- The trailer of Joker