The Joker is perhaps the entity in western culture that is most synonymous with villainy. For generations, different narratives have been crafted about this dubious antithesis to Batman’s stoic calculations in comic books, video games, and film, all depicting him as a sociopathic zealot who exists beyond the boundaries of society. Just over a decade ago, the late Heath Ledger delivered a performance in “The Dark Knight” as a version of the Joker that is inarguably among the greatest ever single performances in cinema, and with similarly remarkable performances from Jack Nicholson and Mark Hamill in different incarnations of the role, the Joker exists in the pantheon of fictional characters ever created. Now DC Comics and Warner Bros. made the notably brilliant decision to produce a film as a character study that solely focuses on the Joker and his psychology.
The anticipation surrounding the public release of this film is nothing short of ludicrous. “Joker”, upon its debut, won the Venice Film Festival Golden Lion (Best Picture), and it is worth noting that the previous two winners were “Roma” and “The Shape of Water”, both of which utterly cleaned house at their respective years’ Oscars. Joaquin Phoenix was even receiving Oscar buzz so extreme that he immediately skyrocketed to the top of almost all of the oddsmakers’ rankings. Then, the film struck controversy, apparently being criticized for glorifying violence and potentially inspiring real-life incidents of aggression. Although the film had yet to be viewed by the public, the narrative was out there and it was considered major news worth discussing. For good and bad reasons, the hype surrounding “Joker” was an unstoppable force that just demanded everyone see what could cause this sort of impact on the social Richter Scale.
How could any film size up to a previewing wave of anticipation like that? Pretty damn well, as it turns out. Very much inspired by the works of Martin Scorsese, particularly “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy”, “Joker” is about the tragic descent into madness by failed clown/comedian Arthur Fleck, played by Phoenix. The film is incredibly intimate, depicting a man who is maliciously thrown to the side by society, and ultimately succumbing to his violent urges to combat the hypocrisy of the world we live in. If you find yourself sympathizing with Arthur, that is the point. The fact that you can understand his plight does not mean you are condoning what he does, but it does mean you see his violent actions for what they are. Instead of claiming that a violent act is so alien that we couldn’t possibly understand how someone could fall so hard, we should recognize what pushes someone there and perhaps do what we can to prevent someone from going down a similar path.
What makes the Joker a character that has been endearing to fans for generations, despite how heinous his actions are is that he is a force of nature that requires you to start thinking. No one is ever truly sure what the Joker is planning on doing next and that sums him up best: He makes us all unsure. We are unsure if he is justified, self-aware, in control, planned out, telling the truth, insane, or even genius. One criticism that a Joker origin story provoked prior to the film was that a character such as him needed us to be unsure about him in order for him to thrive the same way, but “Joker” shows us everything it wants us to see and you leave wondering about so many things. I subscribe to the idea that every version of the Joker that we have seen in media is its own unique possibility, meaning they all have the potential to be accurate or they can all simply be another made up story the Joker tells to add to his lure. So even if the film portrays where he came from, I cannot be so sure that it is the whole truth.
One of my favorite aspects of the film is just how it utilizes its musical score to tell its story. It is no secret that films use music to further communicate emotions, but Joker uses it uniquely. A prominent feature of the madness of Arthur is that he can seemingly hear the score and dances to it. Aside from how eerie his slow dancing is, the fact that he acknowledges aspects of the film that are supposed to be beyond the fourth wall forces you to judge for yourself if anything you are witnessing is true reality or just Arthur’s perception of it. You can just see it as Arthur expressing his embrace of his long sought-after control and the score simply complimenting it for our sakes. However, I interpret it almost as if we are seeing all the events play out through the filter of his own madness, and he is the one adding music to the scenes, which creates a veil of ambiguity as to the authenticity of all of the actions that transpire on screen.
And the film very much understands the cerebral qualities of the character it bases itself on. While the Joker is undoubtedly a chaotic evil in almost all of his many incarnations, he almost always follows a sort of corrupted logic that makes sense through his twisted lens. You may not like yourself for it, but you’ll understand exactly what drives the Joker to do everything he does. It is not the way you would handle yourself, but if you experienced his life, you can definitely deduce why this is his answer. The film is trying to get you to realize that understanding the rationale behind the evil he commits is not simultaneously justifying him carrying those acts out. The world he lives him is cruel and treats him like he is unworthy of decency. Arthur has a line in his journal that is deeply profound: “The worst part about having a mental illness is that people expect you to behave like you DONT”. To the world, Arthur is just crazy and he is treated like he is not even a person for it.
The criticisms of society are emanating from nearly every action in the film. From topical commentary on elitism, classism, mental health and economic opportunity to how little care we give to treating people the right way while still expecting others to treat us well back. We see that no one views themselves as evil in the film, and yet, you may struggle to find a truly good and decent human being in the entirety of the film. It is not as if Arthur is completely an innocent victim before the film begins. It is alluded to that he already was a patient at Arkham Asylum before and hasn’t fully reconciled why. We can assume he performed a criminal act before, which would explain why he isn’t allowed to carry a gun. Thomas Wayne, who is consistently portrayed as an altruistic savior in most other incarnations of Batman lore, is a certified asshole in this film. He calls people struggling in Gotham “clowns” that are jealous of those like him who have found success in life. And yet, he views himself as a hero for Gotham, running for Mayor to save the city. The film wants you to look inwardly and truly evaluate yourself. Are we the heroes of our story or are we contributing to a negative culture that breeds inequality and violence?
Joaquin Phoenix has delivered the best performance I have seen yet this year and the Oscar buzz is most defintely warranted. His physical transformation is frightening, almost rivaling Christian Bale’s weight loss exploits for “The Machinist”, and while that is impressive, anyone can starve themselves. The real muscle of his performance is in the way Phoenix wholly becomes the Joker, adopting mannerisms that put everyone who comes across him on edge. He put in the effort to study real-life instances of patients suffering from Pseudobulbar Affect, better known as pathological laughter, and is more than convincing that he might actually suffer from the neurological disorder. The physical pain he displays when he laughs too hard seems like his body’s genuine reaction to what has become an iconic evil cackling. And he is on screen for virtually the entire film which burdens him with essentially being the entire film.
Artistically, the film is stunning to look at because Gotham City is filthy in the best way imaginable. They allude to a city-wide garbage strike throughout the film and we watch the filth on the streets pile up continuously, which serves as an obvious metaphor for Gotham as a society. Every frame is tinted with an off-cyan glow or ominous flickering of lights to make the audience feel encased in the madness of the world on screen. You feel it is almost possibly that the stench of the garbage buildup is producing the chosen color pallet. There are even a few moments that produce still images that fully encapsulate the very epitome of the Joker as a character that were so magnificent that I could not stop the urge for me to talk about it for hours after I left the theater.
This movie is everything I could have ever hoped it would be. It is one of the most complex and philosophical comic book films ever created and it took a property that has already found success and gave it a whole new means of standing out. DC Comics may have struck gold here but they need to be smart about it. They will never out-cinematic universe the MCU, but they have interesting stories, like this one to tell. If they keep down this path, they will show that they have a whole different perspective on comic book films to offer fans, rather than a lesser copycat. It is very early but “Joker” seems like the type of film that will be remembered for many years.
I would give “Joker” a fantastic 9.2 out of 10
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen
Directed by: Todd Philips
Runtime: 2 Hours and 1 Minute