If this one doesn’t get some kind of Oscar recognition come awards season, then I don’t know what will.
From Todd Phillips, director of The Hangover trilogy (yep, you read that right), Joker takes place in the early 80s and follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a down and out clown for hire that survives by barely living at all. Plagued by a neurological disorder that sees him spontaneously burst out laughing to the point that it physically hurts, Arthur stumbles through a life that he has resigned to being nothing special or worthwhile; an invisible person in a world that doesn’t seem to care he exists. So when his problems begin to mount and his mind begins to break down with every passing day, Arthur starts a slow spiraling descent into the darkest corners of himself as violent and delusional thoughts begin to creep into every ounce of his being. With a hopeful career of becoming a stand-up comedian his only drive in the seedy, crime-ridden city of Gotham, Arthur begins to find solace in the fact that he might just be okay the way he already is, and if no one will give him the chance to show what he’s truly capable of, he’s going to force them to see his potential by any means necessary. Like Arthur’s mom always says when things get low, just put on a happy face!
First and foremost, this film, beginning to end, is a character study that just so happens to be seen through the lens of a comic book character. It’s not a Batman flick, it’s not a superhero blockbuster, hell, it’s not even one of those fancy movies that tie into a larger cinematic universe everyone always goes crazy over. Joker is, at first glance and after deep deliberation, a singular standalone film that is the culmination of near pitch perfect casting, writing, directing and acting, coupled with a no punches pulled approach to a story that many people might find offensive and disturbing to say the least. In short, this one is one of the best films to come along in recent memory, and for good reason.
Revolving more or less around one character for the entire runtime, everything begins and ends with Joaquin Phoenix and his portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime. Phoenix gives a performance of a lifetime, carrying every scene of the movie while driving the story forward with a truly twisted take on the iconic villain. Ledger and Nicholson he is not, and luckily, he doesn’t try to be, opting for a more psychotic, grounded and humanized take on the character, a decision that does wonders to sell the story and plot beats the way they need to be sold, especially in the more intense scenes when they occur.
Wrapped in a visual look and feel of an art house film backed by the studio system’s resources, director Todd Phillips finds the sweet spot with his lead, allowing some humor to sink in here and there as the tension and horror of what is happening on screen unfolds. We don’t want to care for this unhinged man and what he does, but some sympathy is necessary to understand why he does what he does, and while no one who made this film is condoning Arthur’s actions, sometimes understanding what makes people like this tick is imperative to understanding why these things happen, and how they can be prevented in the first place. Phillips never loses sight of what makes this monster a human, and while the ultimate fate of Arthur Fleck is already sealed before the first shot of the film, Phillips knows – just like Batman does decades later – that every villain came from somewhere and was birthed by something, it just so happens that this version of the Joker is already a lost cause.
With scenes of extreme violence coupled with a slow burn of a character study pushing this film forward, Joker excels in giving us a portrait of a madman before he goes mad, and a peek behind the curtain of a person that never knew what he would become – and what he would inadvertently start in the streets of Gotham – until it was too late. It’s a great look for a villain that usually has no back-story to speak of, and no rhyme or reason for his antics.
That being said, and for all the fantastic choices the filmmakers made for this film, Joker is and will be divisive for quite some time. I personally only had maybe two or three nitpicks that are even less than nitpicks (if such a word existed to describe that), but the general consensus that I seem to be gathering from people who disliked the movie is pretty plain and simple: their issues with the film mostly stem from the extreme violence, disturbing depiction of a mentally ill person and overall idea of the film being about Joker in the first place, all of which are exactly the reasons as to why the filmmakers made the movie they made to begin with.
Joker is violent, yes, overly so, but it’s also disturbing as well. It deals with the dark and gritty nature of someone fraying at the seams with no anchor to reach out to. It unflinchingly shows what problems can sprout up in a life that is used to being marginalized, put down and basically shit on at every turn. It’s not a fairy tale being told to make people feel better, it’s a cautionary tale that tells a story about very real life problems that can – if left unchecked – turn into something horrible. It’s a mirror put up to the face of those who watch it with the added hook of it being about one of the greatest fictional characters ever conceived, regardless of how it ties into the existing Batman/Joker mythos. It’s a deep dive into the vastness of a broken mind and a broken life, not only to show that anyone who has had a few particularly bad days can eventually snap, but that we can make villains out of people that never intended to be one. There’s some truly brilliant stuff happening in this film, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
But it’s here that a lot of the misconceptions arise. Is this film only doing this for shock value? Is it done in a less than tasteful way? Is it empowering the kinds of people it depicts onscreen to take part in the madness and mayhem our character deems necessary? Did they ruin the Joker character in the portrayal they chose to go with? The short answer for all of these questions is a resounding “no”. I don’t know where a lot of this type of criticism comes from (did we all see the same movie I did???), but it really dumbs down the message and purpose of this film, sometimes before anyone has a chance to see it for themselves.
Joker is a film that challenges you to think and stew in the violent and unnerving darkness of the subject material present while also coming to terms with the fact that monsters aren’t always born, they’re sometimes shaped and molded by the filthy, unfair world around them. Without shying away from the idea that mental illness, gun violence, rampant crime, unemployment, access to medication and shitty living conditions can affect a person that is already on the verge of breaking, Todd Phillips and his team are able to effectively and disturbingly tell a story about one man’s descent into madness and the very real, very scary actions that result from a lifetime of being shoved in the dirt and passed over.
This movie fucked me up in the best way possible, and I am still unpacking what I saw, so if you plan on going to a showing anytime soon, just be warned that it isn’t an easy watch, but if you allow yourself to sit in the filth and be affected by the distressing themes from the safety of your seat, you’ll find that this slow spiraling trip into violent insanity is most definitely well worth the watch, and even more so worth the conversation that it will inevitably spark afterwards.