The Joker, as a character, is enigmatic in every way. Despite being one of, if not the most recognizable villains in pop culture, his origins have always changed with just about every iteration of the character. So much so that if you were to ask casual fans about his story, they would give you a variety of answers – almost like each of them were answers to a multiple choice question where the teacher forgot to put in the right one.
Joker (2019) looks to give us another retrospective look into a man that would come be known as the Clown Prince of Crime, albeit one that’s more introspective and intimate than most others – far more intimate than most would like.
This re-imagining is brought to us by Todd Phillips, a director known for his more comedic outings such as The Hangover trilogy (2009-2013) and Borat (2006). More on how his filmographic history influences this film later. Portraying the titular maniac and his alternate identity Arthur Fleck is method actor Joaquin Pheonix (Her, Walk the Line), who embodies the character in a way only few actors can.
Arthur Fleck is a heavily-medicated clown-for-hire who suffers from Pseudobulbar affect, depression, and schizophrenia. He’s poor, bullied, ridiculed, unloved, and left unacknowledged by the world around him – shy of his withered mother who he cares for so dearly. When budgets cuts keep Arthur from his much-needed medications, his life spirals into a series of unfortunate events that drive him deeper into madness.
After having killed three Wall Street white collars who’re beating him up in a subway, Arthur inadvertently causes a city-wide riot that pits the rich against the poor with mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne as the face of the former.
Joaquin Phoenix was nothing less than excellent in the role of the Joker and Arthur Fleck – believably portraying the sickest and most disturbing parts of both characters while still allowing you to feel just a shred of sympathy for them… before taking that sympathy away and stabbing it repeatedly right in front of you. It was a powerful performance that brought to life a horrifyingly plausible tale of a man stricken with mental illness and grief.
Robert de Niro (Taxi Driver, Casino) channels Jerry Lewis in his role as late-night show host Murray Franklin, a role reminiscent of Lewis’ Jerry Langford in The King of Comedy (1982), where De Niro plays a role akin to Arthur Fleck.
Director Todd Phillips gives us a taste of his usual serving of comedy but in a darker variety. I suppose that it would take a comedy director to bring to life the kind of sick humor that Joker does; preferably one that understands how to turn it over its head and serve it rotten. You wouldn’t wanna be the guy who laughs at the jokes that this film has to offer, but Phillips makes sure that you do.
The film lingers on things that it wants you to see and doesn’t care if you find it disturbing or macabre – Arthur’s awkward jokes, his distorted physique, his suicidal tendencies, his unsettling dance, his painful laugh. He’s a man who struggles to act normally and it shows. The film does this to give precedence and importance to the scenes that follow; scenes that show a severe contrast between Arthur and the Joker without the need for an acid bath, facial scars, or bad tattoos.
Joker‘s use of seamless transitions between reality and fantasy is nothing short of brilliant. It flawlessly immerses you in the mind of Arthur Fleck, a man who struggles with reality himself. It creates doubt in the mind of the viewers, leaving them unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy themselves. What was real and what wasn’t?
Joker, as a film, is an in-depth character study of the would-be Jester of Genocide that forces us, the audience, to accept that most insane truths about society.
It is not your run-of-the-mill comic book flick. It’s a psychological thriller that’s more akin to the likes of Black Swan (2010) or American Psycho (2000). It draws on Scorsese classics like Taxi Driver (1976), The King of Comedy (1982), and Mean Streets (1973) for its themes and motifs, and borrows heavily from the characterization of the titular villain in the 1988 graphic novel by Alan Moore The Killing Joke.
There’s a lot to be said about this one. It tackles a multitude of things in its 122-minute run time so masterfully that people will likely be talking about this movie for years much like how people still talk about The Dark Knight (2008).
It depicts the ugliest effects of mental illness without any form of hesitation or remorse for its audience; telling the story of a man struggling with identity and recognition in a world that invalidates his very existence and his humanity just because he’s poor. It tells of the how ugly things can get when people are treated like animals who misbehave; of how one bad day can make a man go utterly insane.
It does not preach but, instead, warns of the dangers of hiding from the reality that we live in a world governed by money and those who have it, where the poor and the sick are ignored because that’s easier than to actually face that reality and make a change.
This is a reality told through the eyes of one of the most unreliable protagonists to ever grace the silver screen. The film’s seamless transitions between reality and fantasy accentuate the fact that their reality and ours aren’t all that different – from the seemingly endless socio-political unrest worldwide to the continuous mass shootings in the United States.
The character of the Joker propagates the idea that he does what he does because it’s the only thing that makes sense; that it’s the only way that the world will ever see him. And in the end, one could surmise that he was right – and that is a scary thought.
Watching this movie leaves you with a nasty taste in your mouth. But it’s a taste that’s always been there. You just learned how to sugarcoat it.
Joker focuses on a man driven far past the edge of insanity because of a world in a state of sin; a world where only money can buy you love, respect, and recognition.
Despite what most people might think, Joker does not glorify violence nor does it romanticize mental illness. Instead, it shows you the darkest parts of humanity and tells you not to blink. It forces you to sit through the most unsettling and extreme examples of what an entire lifetime’s worth of bad days can do to one man. It sheds light on the parts of us that we’d rather be kept in the dark; that we’d rather sweep under the rug. All that and the movie keeps reminding you that there’s no hiding from the reality of the world that we live in today – you can either accept it or just let it drive you insane.