JOKER: Country: US / Canada. Director: Todd Phillips. Screenwriters: Todd Phillips and Scott Silver. Language: English. Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Marc Maron, Hannah Gross. A 57th New York Film Festival Special Presentation. Release Date: October 4, 2019. Runtime: 122 minutes.
Mostly Indies rating: A+
This review contains spoilers.
There’s been much publicity about Joker, now playing in theaters. Some of it is good (all involving Joaquin Phoenix’s performance where he slowly morphs from an ineffectual man disconnected from the world into a monster in clown attire). Some of it, however, delves into the truly ridiculous, and I refuse to give into what the movie is not about — namely, the excessive depiction and/or ideation of violence, of which this picture has not one scene. It would be a waste of time, and Joker is too good a movie, too keen a character study to reduce it to a mess of gore and mayhem. Frankly, and I’ll say it, whoever saw Joker and walked out so horrified because it was disturbingly violent that they had to go on and write that this picture may lead to repeat incidents like the one in a certain theater in Colorado probably needed views on his or her page or wanted to stir up some trouble. This, dear reader, is what sensationalism is based on and it’s as old as time. Exaggeration sells. Tabloids have perfected embellishment to an art form. If I’m a rising movie blogger and I need to go viral I’m definitely going to make sure my posts are so out there, so filled with vitriol, that you have no chance but to see it and gape. That is what has happened with Joker, and to be fair. while there are some violent moments in its narrative, nothing in it approximates anything you won’t see in the news, Discovery ID, or any slasher / horror movie for that matter. Even Joker’s inspiration, Taxi Driver, blows it out of the water, and today, is considered a de facto classic.
Without further ado, here is what Joker is about. It depicts an alternative origin story of Batman’s arch nemesis, and that story centers on the sad spiral into darkness of one Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who, safe to say, probably never had a chance to co-exist peacefully in the modern world. His introduction is that of a victim of theft in the middle of Gotham City, a man with a disorder that makes him laugh inappropriately, as he tries to scrape a living as a party clown who wishes to make people laugh as a stand-up comic. If that isn’t pathetic enough, he still gets blamed by his boss for allowing the theft to happen. A meeting with his therapist sheds some light into his state of mind, which is very negative. Adding to that is his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), who seems immersed in her own world of fantasy, frail and unable to fend for herself. A coworker later gives Arthur a gun for self-defense, an act that will backfire badly later on once Arthur gets fired from his job for bringing that very same gun to a children’s hospital. Arthur, in short, has no friends, no social life, nothing to lighten up the burden. The sole glimmer of hope comes in the form of a neighbor, the beautiful Sophie (Zazie Beetz), who he meets fleetingly in the elevator as they exchange awkward pleasantries and whom he invites to watch him perform a comedy routine.
Sophie’s presence alone may have been a saving grace for Arthur, but he seems to be a magnet for events that seek to diminish him as a person. Funding for his medical therapy has ceased, leaving him a ticking time bomb. His dream at the start of the movie is to be a guest on Late Night with Murray Franklin; that dream will take a disastrous, defining turn when Franklin (Robert De Niro) openly mocks Arthur’s attempt to tell a joke during a failed comedy act (which has gone viral). It’s only when three corporate drones who happen to be from Thomas Wayne’s (Brett Cullen) firm show up on the subway one night to taunt a woman, when all of that inner rage that has been testing inside becomes unleashed in one fell swoop. Arthur’s laughing disorder kicks into overdrive, which attracts the attention of the three goons who decide to take matters into their own hands. Just when it seems as though once again, life and fate have descended on Arthur like a ton of bricks, he surprisingly reacts, injuring two fo the men in self-defense. The third man runs away, terrified, into the dark subway station, with Arthur in calm pursuit. Arthur then corners the third guy, and coldly executes him, vanishing into the night.
We now start to see a darker version of Arthur Fleck emerge as he starts to feel more “confident”. While Wayne condemns the shootings and makes light of those at the bottom of the social pile, calling them clowns, protests emerge from the woodwork with people now donning clown faces to resemble the mysterious killer. Arthur is starting to enjoy this newfound status. However, this sense of having some power, some control, comes to a crashing halt once Arthur intercepts a letter written by Penny to Wayne claiming Arthur is his long-lost son, the fruit of an illicit affair she had. Arthur attempts to visit the Wayne mansion and has an all-too-brief encounter with Bruce Wayne before Alfred comes between them. This leads Arthur to a confrontation with Wayne himself who reveals some unexpected information which Arthur confirms when he visits Arkham State Hospital. The information, alongside Wayne’s own rejection, is so crushing one can’t but wait for the inevitable. What little Arthur had tethering him to humanity has now been effectively severed. Arthur is less than the clown he projects; he is no one, nothing, and almost like a bookend to Joaquin Phoenix’s last movie, he was never really there to begin with. He never mattered.
Of all the origin stories, this one is the story that I have to say gets me the most. It is profoundly nihilistic, dripping in agony, a movie that dares you to feel sorry for this character (and you find that at times, you do). Superheroes often have traumatic entries into their new personas, but Joker, as a standalone origin story, is well apart from the rest because it almost makes his rebirth into something that was fated. However, this time, the man inside isn’t a courageous hero but an emasculated incel. Joker presents an origin story about pain disguised as a smile or an attempt at a laugh, and nothing can be more schizophrenic and pay more homage to the two masks of comedy and tragedy than Arthur Fleck’s descent. Throughout the entire movie Joaquin Phoenix moves around as if even movement itself causes him misery; there isn’t a moment when the character seems to be at ease. His world is deeply diseased and has no door to escape. His laughing disorder comes through as a gasp of pain and desperation. This is a man constantly crying out for help, and no one seems to be paying attention. No one comes to his aid.
Take away the superhero / comic book facade and you have a tragedy of epic proportions, plain and simple. I can see this character with eyes of compassion because how many of these lone, crazy killers have come forth after having somehow slipped through the cracks? How many of these walking wounded continue to fail to find any solace and live in constant fear and self-hatred and delusions? It even makes me wonder, can madness then not only be genetic but environmental? We now know Arthur Fleck has no family to speak of but an unstable mother; can lack of nurture, abuse, and manical delusions indeed be responsible for shaping a psyche like the man who slowly transforms into the Joker?
The answer, quite simply, is yes… and no. There are horror stories of horribly abused people who come out to the surface; this is clearly not that story. Arthur has made his choice because quite literally he has never been given a chance to be anything else but a failure. When he stands up on top of the vehicle towards the end of the movie and paints his Glasgow smile, I found it to be probably the most horrific moment in the entire film and I admit that this is where I wept, not in sadness, but in horror. It is the proverbial awakening of a monster in full force, aware, omnipresent, and capable of incredible savagery. This is, by far, Joaquin Phoenix’s best performance so far and one that elevates a pulp character based on a silent movie (The Man Who Laughs from 1924) into something terrifying. It’s a fitting entry for a character like Joker, and one that may divide audiences alike or bring people together to discuss. I personally think that Joker takes the concept of a man driven mad and completely runs with it, even hinting that perhaps he might be related to the Batman himself — a conceit I would have gladly accepted since it raises the question of the good within evil and evil within the good, split into two different people pushing against each other perpetually.
Now, onto the more technical aspects of Joker. I’m pretty happy with the way Todd Phillips presented his story. Period. I can’t fault him for having used Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy as templates to find a platform for Arthur Fleck’s story, and to be honest, I have to disagree with critics who accuse Joker of following both stories a bit too on the nose. Joker is its own story of despair told in vivid colors and gritty detail, one that will ask a second viewing to get the nuances of the character study. The use of music is truly a stand-out: Stephen Sondheim;s Send in the Clowns, and Jimmy Durante’s Smile get incredible mileage, and the use of a stairway (most likely the kind found in the 200s in uptown Manhattan) depicts the fall and rise of the Joker like nothing I’ve ever seen before. In the first scene, we see a defeated Arthur dwindled into nothing agsainst the looming apartment buildings that frame the stairway. He seems almost unable to climb one more step… and yet, he does. The next time we see Arthur, he’s almost channeling Gene Kelly, dancing and shimmying down like he were in his own musical as he goes for his grand entrance at Murray Franklin’s show.
I guess I could go on and on but I will leave it up to you to go see this incredible movie, and don’t read too much of what the media wants to instill: a fear of controversial, high quality motion pictures in which sometimes, a bad guy is born because he was born to be bad.