In a lonely, dark, isolated corner of the decaying city of Gotham, a man named Arthur Fleck is alone. Mentally disturbed, cut off from society, delusional, and just maybe turning into something awful. Something unlike anything Gotham, or the world has seen before. A horror that will soon only be known as... the JOKER.
Joker is not an easy movie to watch. Nor is it easy to swallow. But it is eliciting a lot of discussion, whether from comic fans, social prognosticators, or critics. If there’s one thing Joker isn’t short on, it’s creating division and debate.
Some have said it’s unnecessary. And maybe it is. It could also be said it’s an indispensable psychoanalysis of a man abandoned by society and slowly unraveling. It’s the same formula Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver used to magnificent, violent perfection forty-three years ago (Joker is more of an homage than a rip-off, deftly tipping its hat to its predecessor in several ways both obvious and oblique), but applied to a man who would become Batman’s greatest foe.
The film’s director, Todd Phillips, and star Joaquin Phoenix have added fuel to the fire with acerbic comments and bizarre interviews. And of course, there’s the rigorous debate over the responsibility of whether or not, in the current American zeitgeist, it’s even a film that should in good conscience be let loose for mass consumption. Does it glorify its protagonist’s violence? No. Absolutely not. But does it present it in a way that grabs hold of the viewer and refuses to let them go? Yes.
But all of that controversy aside – and that’s not to diminish it at all, but it is a conversation for a different place – what Phillips and Phoenix, as well as co-stars Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro, and Frances Conroy have created is nothing less than a minor masterpiece. Not without flaws, to be sure, but pretty darn close to perfection, provided the viewer can separate his- or herself from any preconceived notions of what the Joker should (or could) be.
Although not strictly adapted from any existing stories, though, Joker does owe a massive debt to one story in particular for inspiration.
The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland is, on top of being a sacrosanct touchstone of Batman lore, considered by many to be the closest thing that exists to a definitive Joker origin. In it, a failed, nameless (that his identity remains anonymous is a key part of the story; Phillips finds a way to play with this notion in a major bait-and-switch) comedian with a pregnant wife at home is beset with tragedy on the night he’s foolishly chosen to throw in on what is supposed to be an easy theft from a local chemical plant. When his wife and unborn child perish in a freak electrical accident, and, distressed and having no reason to live, he winds up falling into a vat of chemicals and becomes the mass-murdering clown everyone loves to hate.
The key to The Killing Joke is that, after presenting what could be a very plausible and ultimately tragic origin for Batman’s most nightmarish villain, the Joker states that sometimes he remembers his backstory one way, and other times another, immediately throwing the legitimacy of what’s just been read into question. It’s not coincidence that Heath Ledger would, two decades later, play multiple choice with the Joker’s origin as well – shrouding his history in uncertainty creates a kind of inevitability for the character. The Joker can never be known, because he’s a force of anarchic nature that simply is.
Joaquin Phoenix, working from a screenplay by Phillips and Scott Silver, taps into the same tragicomic mystery for his Arthur Fleck, an emotionally distraught and mentally unravelling loner with no friends or social life, and delusions of grandeur vis-à-vis a career as – you guessed it – a comedian. Arthur’s only support is the mother with whom he lives (Conroy) and the fantasies he has of breaking out on Gotham City’s late night talk show (hosted by De Niro, neatly fitting into Jerry Lewis’ role in Scorsese’s and his earlier film The King of Comedy). The trouble is, Arthur is not only suffering from severe depression, but also has a neurological tic wherein he laughs and giggles uncontrollably when he becomes nervous or anxious. People on the street see him as a target or a freak; his social worker sees him as just another case and society at large doesn’t see him at all.
Arthur is simultaneously a victim and creation of societal indifference. The film is set in 1980 – all grime-encrusted, dingy, and poorly lit as viewers may recall from film of the time (or having been there at all). It’s a city where everyone keeps their head down and minds their own business; in a way it could just as easily be 2019 with everyone’s face buried in a smart phone. The cinematography suggests the New Hollywood of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the camera itself uses a washed-out lens – coupled with darkened lighting for most scenes – to truly recreate the look and feel of 1970s American cinema. Phillips’ Gotham is a time capsule to another era, perfectly recreating its intended cityscape with every bit of authenticity he can muster. It could maybe not only be this city that created the Joker, but it certainly doesn’t defy credibility to have done so, either. In this film, Gotham has as much personality to be considered a de facto character all its own; just as much as the gothic playground of Tim Burton’s Batman ’89 but in a far more ground-floor way.
But a dying city isn’t the only thing that works to create Arthur Fleck. He’s been abandoned by everybody, even his lost and helpless mother, played with detached, dementia-addled perfection by Frances Conroy. Similarly impactful – but in a way that doesn’t become evident until the story is nearing its climax – Zazie Beetz (seemingly wasted at first, but wait for the penny to drop) inhabits crush-worthy girl-next-door charm, giving Arthur his last remaining connection to a conventional relationship. Then there’s Robert De Niro, doing some of his best work in almost two decades, a near-retirement late-night talk show host whom Fleck has been watching for so long he imagines him as a kind of father figure. De Niro’s been down this road before, as stated above, in The King of Comedy, now older and wise enough to play the subject of somebody else’s obsession. It’s no Oscar-worthy performance – that’s Phoenix’s trophy to lose at this point – but it’s solid, vintage De Niro.
And what about Phoenix’s portrayal of a man slowly (quickly?) losing his ties to humanity? Without hesitation, it’s one of the best performances you’ll see all year. Phoenix, rail-thin to the point of emaciation, looks every inch like a man coming undone. His movements are spasmodic and jerky, seemingly out of sync with his surroundings, but then in another instant can turn vulnerable and wounded, almost like a puppy with a hurt paw. His expressions are almost always some variation of pained, whether they’re flat and emotionless or he’s hooking his fingers into his cheeks to pull his smile up into a haunted grin. And just when you almost want to feel sorry for Fleck, he’ll do something horrific that immediately snaps the viewer out of their false sense of security.
Not that Fleck has it easy. Early on in the film, he’s working as a clown to promote a local going-out-of-business sale, when some kids steal his sign. He gives chase, runs down a blind alley, and has the sign smashed over his head and is subsequently beaten by the gang. Then, for all his trouble, the business’s owner believes Fleck stole the sign and reports it to his boss, who doesn’t want to hear any stories about kids and thievery, and demands Fleck return the sign. Fleck weakly protests to no avail; the cost of the sign is taken out of his check. And this is how the movie starts.
Phillips spends the next half of the film (it’s relatively short given its auteur sensibilities, clocking in at only 121 minutes) gradually breaking Fleck down, pushing him further and further to the edge until he crosses a line he can’t come back from. From that point on, it’s an ever-quickening descent into sociopathy and madness. A director with less artistic vision may have taken this moment to take a shallow victory lap and play up the wrong message of what’s just happened (et tu, Falling Down?). But not Phillips. Instead, he uses Fleck’s downfall to hold up an ugly mirror to a society gone wrong – but this is no finger-pointing diatribe. Instead, it’s a tragedy – but the protagonist isn’t the tragedy, rather, it’s the world that created him. “The worst part of having a mental illness,” Fleck muses, “is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” That’s the film in a nutshell. It isn’t about glorifying the Joker, or turning him into a sad, relatable clown. It’s about the disease of indifference running rampant in society – and that’s nothing to laugh about.
If there’s anything the film can be faulted for, it’s a stilted attempt to shoehorn the Wayne family (this is Gotham, after all) into the story, particularly in the third act, where it winds up being distracting. Fortunately, this is ultimately a minor footnote in the film’s grand scheme of things. Todd Phillips took a lot of heat from some corners of fandom for boldly admitting he wasn’t attempting to use any existing source material for Joker. He’s crafting a (mostly) original take on the character, and in liberating him from the shackles of the typical capes-and-spandex fare, is able to take the character into darker, more introspective places than could be had otherwise. It’s a bold move, and clearly one Warner Brothers had a lot of faith in, choosing to debut it as Oscar-bait at the Venice Film Festival rather than a more fan-friendly venue elsewhere.
A lot of care was put into crafting this movie, to make it something unique. Some fans won’t like it. Some moviegoers won’t like it. But that’s okay. Taxi Driver wasn’t for everyone, either. Joker is a movie that’s hard to digest and forces the viewer to think – two traits that are far, far too rare in film anymore. Whether it’s at the theater or a few months from now at home, do not make the mistake of dismissing this film because of it’s left-of-center take on a character who’s been around for decades. See it, study it, examine it – think about it. Joker offers no easy answers to what it’s about, opting instead for the viewer to come to their own opinions. And maybe that’s it’s greatest feat of all.
Joker is definitely not a movie for the masses, choosing instead to be a dark and introspective look at a mind losing his grip on his sanity. It offers no easy answers, glorifies nothing, yet isn't nihilistic or cynical either. It's a once-in-a-lifetime achievement, and something new for the comic book film genre. There may be much to discuss and disagree on about it, but at the very least, Joaquin Phoenix deserves the Oscar he's sure to get in a few months.
JOKER: A Beautiful Dark Twisted (almost) Masterpiece
Writing - 9/109/10
Storyline - 9/109/10
Acting - 10/1010/10
Music - 9.5/109.5/10
Production - 9/109/10
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