“For my whole life, I didn’t know if I really even existed.”
Joker descends on clown for hire Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) painting his face in a lit makeup mirror. The camera rolls in like a cautious voyeur, fixating on Arthur’s empty expression. He looks distraught, barbs both fingers into the corners of his lips, upturning a maniacal smile. A single tear trickles. Arthur Fleck is a repressed person, a man living a tragedy who’s trying to manifest the powers of great comedy, struggling to justify his existence in a world where he’s been physically and mentally battered. Joker opens full of heartbreak, leans into comic book lore, and ends with one of 2019’s most rousing, disturbing final acts. Does this picture celebrate chaos or condemn a mob mentality? Maybe both are true. Maybe neither are. Maybe it’s intentionally unclear. Joker is one of the rare American films that invites scrutiny, and one that asks us to pick it apart as we sit back and watch with an intoxicating sense of discomfort. It’s unsettling how unshakable a movie this is.
Gotham City looks like the true armpit of this fictional world in 1981. The sun never shines, the rain pelts straight down, and strikes have left piles of garbage bags strewn along sidewalks. Like a woebegone place, the late 1970’s aesthetic is so seedy and gross that you can practically smell the screen. This is an ugly place full of both blue and white-collared crime, seemingly lacking a middle class as the disparity between the top and the bottom becomes all the more apparent. Arthur shuffles through life with his head down, going home each night to care for his sickly mother Penny (Frances Conroy), sitting down to get lost in the late show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Penny writes daily letters to her former boss Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), begging the new mayoral candidate to help them towards a better life. Her pleas go unanswered in the empty mailbox, although this connection does take the plot in interesting – if at times too obvious – directions.
Joker never loses sight of Arthur’s existential crisis though, pacing alongside his defeated footsteps as he slowly dances and descends into madness. It’s not of his own choosing either. He’s stripped of his access to therapy sessions and proper medication, an unforgivable mistake leads to a layoff, and a fledgling attempt at stand-up comedy finds him featured on Franklin’s show as the butt of a cruel joke. Everyone’s laughing but Arthur, which tends to be the norm. Arthur has a condition (and carries a card as an explanation to strangers) that causes him to laugh hysterically despite how he really feels. Likewise, in a comedy club, he howls at all of the wrong times. As Arthur, he is a proper misfit. But as he morphs into Joker, blurring the fine line between reality and fantasy, he finally gets the admiration and the warm welcome he’s always needed and wanted. I was reminded of watching the celebrated devolution of Breaking Bad’s Walter White. Jeers transform into cheers.
A romance with a single mother Sophie (Zazie Beetz) down the hall doesn’t amount to much of anything, which is intentional and actually quite pivotal to the film. And the ties to the wealthy Wayne family establish a mythos behind Batman’s own origin story, going so far as to suggest that without the metaphorically cesarean birth of Joker there would have never been a Caped Crusader in the first place. But what Todd Phillips’ film captures so thoughtfully, with Lawrence Sher’s cinematography emulating the internalized violence of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and the colors of The King of Comedy, is a story that’s an eerily evocative love child of both pictures told from a completely unique perspective. Arthur Fleck is a detached loner like Travis Bickle. He’s a loser caught up in a fever dream no dissimilar than that of the outcast Rupert Pupkin. Almost every film you’ve ever seen has lifted or borrowed from pictures of the past. Joker might too heavily depend on outside inspiration, yet despite the time period, the movie transposes those same themes into a damning commentary of the now. Never thought I’d say that about a Todd Philips flick.
Joaquin Phoenix earns his Oscar buzz as he shines in this character study, contorting his body into jigsaw shapes that embody the unsolvable puzzles going on inside Arthur’s head. With the help of Hildur Guðnadóttir’s overwhelming musical score (every bit as deserving of awards consideration), Phoenix’s take guides Arthur’s journey to self-actualization – or, in this case, a troubled transfiguration – into the realm of true performance art. He no longer plods with fear through the streets of Gotham in those clumsy over-sized shoes. Off his meds and having committed heinous crimes, Arthur sprints through the streets, reveling in madness. He stands upright, kicks and shouts, and for the very first time becomes eloquent in explaining how he feels. And while Joker could have been more careful in its handling of mental illness, the film still never puts the blame on Arthur himself. He’s the product of an unkind, uncaring, cynical world.
Joker doesn’t celebrate a killer and a painted face’s power towards a hate fueled anarchist movement, nor does it knowingly dwell in a reciprocated, abusive relationship. Instead, the film rightfully casts the blame on us. Like Dr. Frankenstein, we animated this entity with our disdain for politics, our lack of civility, our ugliness towards those who so desperately need our help. He’s of our own creation. And while Joker may be a false god, it’s incredibly telling that he basks in the limelight, with evil winning the battle and preparing for the war. Perhaps it’s true that we only get what we give. Maybe the worst in us appeals to the most of us. Maybe the difference between heroism and hedonism is nothing more than a vaguely drawn, easily erasable line.
“Is is just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”
Rating: 4.5 out of 5