Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a marginalised schlub suffering from an array of mental illnesses, living alone with his disillusioned, sickly mother (Frances Conroy) in a sad and crumbling apartment. “My whole life, I never knew if I really existed”, Arthur extolls with a tragic smirk as the last bits of good are snatched out of his life by a system that deifies the Haves as it treads bodily on the Have Nots.
Unravelling along with Arthur, Gotham City in 1981 is a powder keg due to a number of civil failures. People are on edge and one bad day away from a bloody catastrophe. Arthur has had nothing but bad days his entire life.
Eking out a living as a clown for hire, Arthur wants to be a standup comedian. The problem, as his mother keeps reminding him, is that he’s not funny. He can barely talk to people and nobody wants to talk to him. Not in any meaningful sense anyway. So he dreams. Dreams of one day making it big enough to appear on his favourite talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Dreams of having a relationship with Sophie (Zazie Beetz), the single mother living down the hall from him. Dreams of just not having bad thoughts anymore. Arthur’s dreams turn to cackling nightmares though when he’s accosted by three drunk yuppies on the subway, and he finally cracks under the impact of both their blows and his miserable existence. His actions start a downward spiral, slick with blood, that threatens to drag the entire Gotham City down with him.
Modern DC Comics movies have often been accused of being too grim and dark, but theirs is the faux gloom of melancholic teens in cracked black makeup writing embarrassing poetry when in comparison to Joker. Director Todd Phillips’ full-blown revisionist origin story for the classic eponymous Batman villain is a truly stygian descent into one man’s mental hellscape.
There have been other accusations levelled at this film though: Journalists accusing Phillips of using his film to glamourize mass killers and incel fringe culture. Does Joker actually do this? Yes… no… maybe. I can’t answer that question definitively for you, because this is a movie that doesn’t traffic in definitive answers. With maniacal glee, it invites introspection and discussion with every frame; it’s the type of movie where two viewers can have completely discordant experiences of it and both still be correct.
Joker is a conflagration of themes and meta-commentary as subtle as a city on fire. It’s inflammatory and revulsive and self-indulgent and pretentious and meticulous and achingly beautiful. In short: It’s art.
The whole affair is anchored by a hellishly physical performance from Phoenix who inhabits virtually every frame of Joker’s two-hour running time. His Arthur Fleck starts out a twisted, sinewy creature, his every movement a cadaverous perversion. As Arthur slowly morphs into a smoothly confident madman approximation of the DC Comics villain we know though – complete with stringy green hair, garishly coloured suit and smiling clown face paint as he dances through scenes – his question mark spine straightens, his twitchy limbs settle. It’s a wholly transformative performance that is deserving of mountains of praise.
But while Phoenix is sure to be destined for more metalware to place on his mantle and thus will hog the headlines, credit also has to be given to Phillips. The true insanity here is that this is the same filmmaker who gave us the Hangover trilogy. Joker is a far cry from that increasingly creatively bankrupt franchise, with Phillips designing and shooting every scene with virtuoso craftsmanship. This film is simply striking to behold both visually and aurally, with each music note and frame meticulously curated to unnerve. And when things turn gruesomely violent, the director doesn’t shy away from the shocking horror of it all. Arthur’s actions are truly horrific and Phillips never lets you forget it, but he never overtly asks you to sympathize nor crucify Arthur either. He just wants you to try and understand Arthur, or at least attempt to. And even if you disagree with that approach – even if you vehemently hate this entire affair – you have to appreciate the skill with which he puts it all together.
Admittedly, Phillips borrows heavily from Martin Scorsese, owing huge debts to the filmmaking legend’s classic – specifically, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy – but he still turns in a film that is decidedly modern and real despite being set in a fictional comic book city in the 1980s. It touches on current affairs like the 1%, the disregard and misunderstanding of mental health issues, consent, gun violence, the media’s exploitation of people for quick ratings, and so much more. There are times you can even feel Phillips smugly winking back at the audience as he appears to metaphorically skewer those critical of his previous work.
And somehow, through all of that, Joker still tries to not forget its comic book roots by throwing in links to the Batman mythology. It’s telling though that this latter aspect offers without a doubt the production’s weakest moments because this is a comic book movie unlike any other. Fittingly, the last entry of the genre that comes even remotely close to Joker’s thematic and metaphorical depth is The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s superhero magnum opus that gave us arguably the most iconic rendition of the Joker yet. Does Phoenix’s effort here top that of the late Heath Ledger? Please see above regarding definitive answers.
But please also see this movie. Much has been made about voices on the internet loudly declaring Joker a dangerous call to arms and thus encouraging audiences to not watch it. But it’s precisely because it’s potentially dangerous that we need to see it. That’s how art works.
Beneath all the acrylic paints and sculptors’ clay, art is a gleaming mirror we hold up to ourselves so that we can confront our flaws. Joker is definitely not perfect (which is ironically a perfect thematic fit) and there are many that will see its politics as incitement instead of a cautionary tale (and vice versa). But with it all but impossible to declare which of those viewpoints are correct, it will get us talking and that’s never a bad thing.
Last Updated: October 7, 2019