The lights dimmed, I popped some buttered popcorn into my mouth, and the screen faded to reveal a man named “Arthur Fleck,” (Joaquin Phoenix), staring at his hollow, white matte-painted face in a shabby vanity mirror. A tear rolls from one of his eyes. He sticks his fingers into the sides of his mouth and struggles to pry up a smile, only to have it collapse into a look of pained, vulnerable despair. He stares at his reflection with shaken defeat. This is Joker.
“I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realize, it’s a comedy.”
Director, Todd Phillips, hatched the idea of Joker in 2016 and wrote the script with screenwriter, Scott Silver, throughout 2017. The two drew inspiration from 1970s character studies and the films of Martin Scorsese, (who as originally attached to the film as a producer), such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The King of Comedy. The graphic novel, Batman: The Killing Joke (1988), was also the original basis for the premise, but Phillips and Silver ended up picking and choosing what they liked in various comics to create their own Joker. Joaquin Phoenix was cast in July, the majority of the remaining cast was cast in August—then POOF! We got the film Joker. Since most of us are familiar with who Joker is, I’ll summarize the film’s plot in a nutshell.
“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”
Arthur Fleck is a man suffering from severe mental illness, lives with and takes care
of his sick mother, Penny Fleck, (Frances Conroy), in the slums of Gotham City, works a scrappy clown job, routinely gets beaten up by people on the streets, and is a broken, anxious, awkward, and isolated individual. Nevertheless, he dreams of attaining happiness, kindness from others, fostering a connection with someone, and becoming a comedian that brings joy into other peoples’ lives whilst escaping his own. But life just seems to deal him one blow right after the other, causing him to progressively crumble and descend into a rageful, destructive life of madness and crime. Seems predictable, right? BOOOONK. Wrong. Because there’s so much more to Joker than that, firstly thanks to the leading man.
“My mother always tells me to smile and put on a happy face. She told me I had a purpose: to bring laughter and joy to the world.”
Joaquin Phoenix. Joaquin Freakin’ Phoenix. When Phoenix was initially cast in the film, some people had their doubts. But his performance in the film proved the opposite. The first, (and obvious), reason is the dramatic extent in which Phoenix pushed himself to prepare for the role, evident by the protruding spine and ribs. This seals the physicality of the character. As for the Joker’s emotional and mental state of mind, Phoenix nails that as well. The actor captures it all, from the palpable loneliness in the quiet, thoughtful gaps of his speech to the unsettling dejection present in his bizarre and erratic mannerisms. Phoenix embellishes his character with every crumb-of-a-detail needed to create a three-dimensional profile of an individual losing himself to madness. There are even moments where the character doesn’t utter a word, yet cause you to genuinely fear him. You feel malevolence dripping from Phoenix’s menacing eyes and pouring and terrorizing the theater with terror. It’s uncomfortable, but believable; Joaquin’s performance is so captivating that you can actually imagine Arthur existing as a human being in the real-world, making it all the more terrifying. The actor captures every bit of suppressed emotion Arthur feels and projects it with his facial expressions, speech, and body mannerisms, thus successfully portraying an isolated, dejected, and hopeless individual. Furthermore, he captures every detail needed to accurately and realistically portray an individual heading towards his downfall. It’s so on point that it’s as if you’re watching a documentary of someone becoming a murderer, which takes us to our next point of realism.
“You don’t listen, do you? You just ask the same questions every week. “How’s you job?” “Are you having any negative thoughts?” All I have are negative thoughts.”
Phillips displays great finesse in creating a film that depicts an individual’s descent
into the extreme. Phillips doesn’t take the easy way out and paint people as ‘bad’ and ‘good.’ He paints them as ‘complex.’ Upon his initial introduction, for example, Arthur Fleck is depicted as a man unable to connect to anyone and feel joy, love, purpose, or accomplishment. Furthermore, he’s even illustrated to be innocent and childlike in his hopeful tone of voice, love for his mother, wanting people to care for him, to fit in with society, to meet his favorite comedic host, Murray Franklin, (Robert DeNiro), and to become a stand-up comedian himself. He isn’t evil from the start. He’s loving and has basic human needs and dreams like any of us. He’s human. Because of that, as the film progresses and you witness immense amounts of pressure stabbing Arthur from every direction, you empathize with his pressure and tension building. You feel the inevitable and tragic explosion coming. You feel sympathetic, compassionate, and pained to see him that way. You even begin to root for him at times when you shouldn’t, causing you to wonder if this movie will play it out like you expect it to–taking us to the third point of this review: unpredictability.
“Better the blind man who pisses out the window than the joker who told him it was a urinal. Know who the joker is? It’s everybody.”
We know that Arthur will inevitably become the Joker. However, because of the sympathy that Phillips, Silver, and Phoenix elicit from us, we continually hope that Arthur will somehow receive justice for everything that he goes through. We keep thinking that he’ll somehow diverge from that path of self-destruction. Unpredictability is thus set up thanks to two factors: our own fostered sympathy and the character’s inconsistent personality. Arthur becomes more and more erratic as the film progresses to the point of where the audience no longer knows what he’ll do, what is going to happen, and who is going to die although you’re already aware of the man’s resulting descent into madness. This causes more tension in the viewer’s favor—a bold move. But tension doesn’t only exist within the character of Arthur Fleck. It exists in the message and social commentary of the film.
“For my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do, and people are starting to notice.”
Maybe I’m interpreting it incorrectly, but here’s my point-of-view. The film takes on
the Joker’s perspective and delineates how a broken society creates a broken soul–that people are often the product of their environment. Phillips depicts how the rich and the powerful, such as Thomas Wayne, (Brett Cullen), are to blame for the Joker’s transformation because they didn’t help him or any other low-class characters out of their current states in Gotham. Instead, they put on a public persona of being justice warriors, yet didn’t bother to bat an eye towards those suffering in poverty, social inequities, mental illness, systemic oppression, etc. until it was too late. It’s brave, powerful, and daring, especially with a lot of filmmakers dodging that soft spot out of fear of sensitivity-backlash. Take, for example, how some people have raised concerns about the film being a potential glorification of violence. I understand their concerns. However, I disagree with them. Phillips, Silver, and Phoenix willing to delve into dark, real themes that many of us want to avoid is applaudable because it attempts to addresses head-on rather than sweep it under the carpet and hope for the best. I think Joker is brutal, raw, and honest–which is why it makes alot of people uncomfortable. They want to deny and turn away from those responsible for such atrocities—ourselves. Our society. But that’s what I believe makes the film even stronger. It explores how a criminal is made and pressures us into thinking about the film after it ends and what to do next.
“The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”
In closing thoughts, Phoenix’s performance is the definition of taking the Joker and bringing him over to our modern-day world. Because of that, Joker is everything we want it to be. It is a manifestation of perfection –everything we could ever envision a Joker origins film to be. Phenomenal, captivating, and tragic.
Genre: Psychological-Drama / Drama-Thriller.
Time: 2 Hours, 2 minutes.
Final Verdict: A+