Forever alone in a crowd, failed comedian Arthur Fleck seeks connection as he walks the streets of Gotham City. Arthur wears two masks — the one he paints for his day job as a clown, and the guise he projects in a futile attempt to feel like he’s part of the world around him. Isolated, bullied and disregarded by society, Fleck begins a slow descent into madness as he transforms into the criminal mastermind known as the Joker.
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy
Director: Todd Phillips
Writers: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
At times brilliant, at times pretentious. At times poetic, at times problematic. At times original, at times a case of “just change it up a bit so it doesn’t look obvious you copied”. Like the character the film is based on, Joker is a series of contradictions and is sure to raise a number of conflicting feelings and opinions but one thing about this film that can be agreed on: Joaquin Phoenix is astounding.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is just a man trying to get by in Gotham City while dealing with his pseudobulbar affect, a condition that causes him to laugh at times uncontrollably. Working as a clown by day, with aspirations of one day being a stand-up comedian, he spends his nights caring for his ill mother (Frances Conroy) and watching his hero Murray Franklin’s (Robert De Niro) late night talk show. After being attacked by a gang of youths and losing his job, Arthur’s world quickly begins to unravel after an encounter with three men on a subway train.
While there are have been a number of different origins stories for the Joker since his creation by created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson in 1940, Joker blazes its own path, taking only the failed stand-up comedian element from The Killing Joke, a frequently cited origin story written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland. The film owes more to films like The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver than it does to DC Comics, ensuring that it feels different to any comic book film we’ve seen so far. Which isn’t to say that the comic’s mythos is not part of the film as Thomas Wayne, father of Bruce, is a pivotal figure in this story.
A major reason people have taken issue with this film is the unflattering depiction of mental health. Understandable, as we don’t really need another example of a mentally ill person killing people. While the film does imply that the blame can also be laid on those in power for not helping or ignoring the issue, and even outright says that this is the case several times, it is not a great look to villainize someone with mental health issues or to kind of position a serial killer as a sympathetic or celebrated figure.
Whatever your feelings about the movie as a whole, there can be little doubt that Joaquin Phoenix gives a stand out performance which Todd Phillips can only be grateful for as it is pretty much a one man show. Watching him on screen is unsettling and hard to look at, particularly with his shirt is off and his gaunt figure is most obvious, but you just can’t look away as he transforms from a sad, lonely, odd man to a true villain. His laugh is equal parts eerie, sad, funny and sinister. Just sitting in silence, you can see how damaged a person Arthur is, an impressive feat. Phoenix has ensured that he will be a strong choice for people to argue for in the debate for the best live-action depiction of the Joker with Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger (Sorry Jared Leto).
The supporting cast has very little to do with Phoenix dominating the film. Frances Conroy is good as Arthur’s frail mother who has her own mental health issues. Robert De Niro is solid as the late night host Murray Franklin but is a periphery figure until the climax of the film. Zazie Beetz is fine as Arthur’s love interest but is nothing more than a love interest and two-dimensional character, admittedly by design and for function.