Synopsis – A gritty character study of Arthur Fleck, a man disregarded by society.
My Take – I have been a massive DC fan all my life, and it genuinely hurt me when Warner Bros. decided to release films like 2017’s Justice League and 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (to some extend) into this world.
While their DC films banner seem to be finally picking steam due to three back to back successes in the form of Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Shazam, their main catch of the films being ‘standalone’ stories, without the stress of interconnection like the MCU, is what eventually, in my opinion, sold well.
But a Joker origin film? How could that possibly work? It is just difficult to imagine Joker existing without Batman, as the maniacal villain we’ve grown to love over the years always existed as the chaotic evil counterpart to Batman’s unwavering lawful morals.
Also, the Joker as a character traditionally has no single origin, as Heath Ledger‘s Academy Award winning version implies in The Dark Knight by altering the story of his face scars for different people. With Alan Moore’s iconic, and originally non-canonical, The Killing Joke, also providing more of an insight into Joker’s philosophy than his actual creation. It’s this void of nothingness aspect of the Joker’s character that made him a self-professed unstoppable force and his whole sinister thing open to interpretation.
It’s for this reason, I was incredibly hesitant about this film, from its announcement, to its first trailer released in April, and right up until the opening titles appeared, despite the glowing reviews it received from the Venice Film Festival. I’m delighted to report that this one is not just a great film, but also pushes the boundaries of adult storytelling and Oscar quality for comic book based films like The Dark Knight and Logan did.
And of course, a major credit for that goes to the blood-curdling performance from Joaquin Phoenix who provides one of the most frightening portrayal of a violent maniac in decades. Yes, the film does swing between glorifying violence and massive outbursts, however, director Todd Phillips‘s masterful direction won’t keep you from enjoying every frame.
Set in 1981, the story follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), an aspiring stand-up who earns his living by working as a clown in Gotham city. Afflicted with a mental condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably, Arthur lives with his sickly mother (Frances Conroy) in a rundown apartment and half-heartedly tries to flirt with his neighbor down the hall, Sophie (Zazie Beetz), a single mother.
Although he functions somewhat normally thanks to a regular cornucopia of pills, the would-be comedian dreams of performing standup comedy on the late night show of Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), and continues to write jokes in a notebook filled with scribbled-on pornography, hoping it would happen one day.
But no matter how well intention-ed Arthur’s choices are, the world around him is constantly punishing and when his mother’s former employee, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), a billionaire philanthropist announces that he is running for the mayor position, the city slowly beginning to spiral out of control, while Arthur begin to lose his grip on his sanity.
This is a version of the Joker we’ve never seen before. We have rarely seen about the details of his life, from his real name to his immediate family members been so explicitly laid out before. This is probably because, this film does not tie itself to any past or future continuities of DC films.
It is a standalone slice of character study, created with the intention of exploring a realistic vision of a historically inappropriate psychopath, whose biggest moments of triumphs in the comic book is killing of the second Robin and in the video game, Injustice: Gods Among Us, was to manipulate Superman into killing a pregnant Lois Lane.
However, here director Todd Phillips humanizes one of pop culture’s all-time most intriguing villains and invites the audience to side with Chaotic Evil defined. Here, Phoenix‘s turn as the Clown Prince of Crime brings something that no previous version has had: humanity. Fleck-turned-Joker isn’t simply an insane foil for Batman or a naturalistic force of chaos. He’s a man who was born with the deck stacked against him, nudged and shoved endlessly toward an inevitable explosion of violent self-acceptance.
Fleck is absolutely a bad guy, but even as he embraces his new persona and the bodies pile up, you might just find yourself rooting for him regardless. Because by making him an accidental antihero, he inspires the downtrodden people of Gotham to rise up against Wall Street fat cats and the “fascists” in City Hall.
Joker doesn’t need Batman because this time, he’s the hero and the villains of this film are poverty, neglect, and oppression. What’s most terrifying and brilliant about Phoenix’s Joker is that he seems to be operating from an intricate yet alien form of logic. There is very little common ground between the character and the viewer, no shared understanding of right and wrong, real or unreal. He erupts into laughter without warning, a terrifying, piercing laugh that he can’t control. He sits in the audience at a comedy club, joyously and maniacally laughing at setups, not punch lines.
The point is, that no matter what, the character of Joker is always going to be interpreted differently. Here, Fleck never becomes totally unsympathetic, as viewers, we can always understand where he’s coming from. The film does humanize a murderer in a way that may make the kinds of disenfranchised real-world mass killers we now see regularly salivate–or, in the worst possible scenario, provide them inspiration.
It’s powerful and potentially controversial, at the same time, it would have no impact at all if it weren’t effective, and it was effective enough to win the Golden Lion, the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, last month. Which is part of what makes this film absolutely essential viewing right now.
Sure, the film 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 cinema, but there are curiously only a handful of scenes that take any kind of cue.
However, the biggest reason to watch the film is Joaquin Phoenix, who absolutely owns the titular role. Phoenix’s take on the clown is like nothing you’ve seen before and you simply cannot take your eyes off him, it is a flawless, physical, terrifying performance. He brings his unique quirks, including that laugh, to make his own idealized Joker, one which will be stacked up proudly along with Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, and Heath Ledger (sorry Jared Leto).
Phoenix also has a wonderful supporting cast in the form of Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Zazie Beetz, Brian Tyree Henry, Glenn Flesher, Douglas Hodge, Marc Maron, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Josh Pais and Dante Pereira Olson, who contribute well in their small roles. On the whole, ‘Joker’ is a masterfully fresh and dangerously exciting origin tale which despite being politically charged is undeniably entertaining.
Directed – Todd Phillips
Rated – R
Run Time – 121 minutes