by Philip Price
Director: Todd Phillips
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro & Zazie Beets
Runtime: 2 hours & 2 minutes
“Joker” is no “The Dark Knight,” but much like in Christopher Nolan's second ‘Batman’ film, the music in writer/director Todd Phillips' origin story about the Clown Prince of Crime plays as critical a role as any living, breathing human character. The score in “Joker” is so critical in fact, that Joaquin Phoenix's titular character breaks into dance at multiple points in the movie; the music and movement serving as an expression of certain emotions Phoenix's Arthur Fleck is otherwise unable to convey. The first time Arthur kills another person he actually ends up killing three people and though it could be argued the first two were in self-defense, the third death was not only unnecessary, but it is one Arthur seeks out and is determined to have for his own sense of satisfaction. Naturally, Arthur flees the scene for fear of being caught, but once he dumps the weapon and composes himself he slowly begins to move his feet as if a ballet dancer practicing the battement tendu position. As Arthur's arms move into second position composer Hildur Guðnadóttir's score begins to swell and these chords and motions only serve to amplify the liberation the character feels. Liberation of one's self after taking another's life is certainly dark, but it also isn't anything we haven't seen from comic book characters - especially villains - before and “Joker” certainly isn't the last time we'll see it either. What is it then, that makes this specific instance of revenge from a man beaten down by society both so egregious and compelling as has been highly documented in the cultural response to the film? Is it that Arthur Fleck's trajectory resembles that of any number of mass shooting culprits? This seems a given, yes, but more it is the level of joy - and not only joy - but satisfaction that Arthur and his eventual alter ego come to gain from the act that has incited concern over both the portrayal and promotion of such a man. Sure, Phillips and Phoenix have intentionally crafted as gritty, raw and grounded a movie as any film inspired by comic books has dared to be and in that type of portrayal there is inherent shock to be found (you saw “The Boys,” right?), but while “Joker” and its screenplay wrestle with what exactly it's trying to say it stands to make a statement about how this product of certain circumstance inspires a man to become what he believes necessary to remedy others from those same, undesirable circumstances. That's not to say he's right, but what is maybe most unsettling about the film and Phoenix's performance is that Arthur believes he is.
Set in the late seventies to early eighties in a grimy Gotham City overrun with garbage and super rats we meet Arthur Fleck as he's working for "Haha's" a talent agency of sorts that employs clowns, strippers, magicians or whatever one might need for a child's birthday party, a bachelorette party or even a "going out of business" sale. So, in the beginning of “Joker,” Arthur is a literal clown, but he's also an aspiring stand-up comic...albeit a comedian no one seems to find funny. Additionally, there is an inherent distance to Arthur as we often see him sitting by himself or walking alone; very rarely engaged in any kind of actual conversation or otherwise enjoying any kind of social situation. Much if not all of Arthur's human interaction comes from the relationship he has with his ailing mother (Frances Conroy) whom Arthur lives with and cares for. Arthur also very clearly has a fondness for if not anything more than a boyish crush on his neighbor down the hall, Sophie (Zazie Beetz), but is obviously too timid and awkward to do anything about it-at least at first. Alienating Arthur from society even more is the fact that his weekly meeting with what is presumed to be a court-appointed social worker will no longer be happening as the city is making budget cuts and as a result is shutting down this program and not only this outlet for support, but Arthur's access to the medicine. "The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don't." is a line that somewhat comes to be a mantra for Phoenix's Fleck and at least somewhat points the film in a direction thematically about where it wants to go and how it wants to address the character as a whole. Because of the garbage strike, the budget cuts and the general lack of sympathy from those in positions of power as exemplified through Brett Cullen's Thomas Wayne (who, coincidentally, played a Congressman in “The Dark Knight Rises” as well) there is also this brewing resentment in the working class that serves as the backdrop for this being the opportune time for Arthur to snap and become this symbol for a city that was already burning, but who many seem to believe will benefit from being burnt all the way to the ground. There are dynamics at play that involve Conroy's Penny Fleck that further incite Arthur's discontent for the wealthy and for Wayne in particular, but it is the aforementioned incident in which Arthur kills for the first time that both escalates and incites the discord between the social classes. The three men Arthur killed were Wall Street-types who worked for Wayne Enterprises and thus their murders are seen as the first instance of this revolt in action; a rallying cry that the rest of the city responds to and that Arthur AKA Joker becomes prepared to lead.
This Joker has no physical scars to speak of as Heath Ledger's version of the character did. In “The Dark Knight,” Ledger's Joker would seemingly get a kick out of telling a different story about how he acquired those left over blemishes around his mouth undoubtedly born from pain that ironically twisted into the shape of an exaggerated smile. While Arthur has no such markings as of yet it is through Phoenix's extreme weight loss and state of frailty that we see both the literal and metaphoric weight the emotional scarring has taken on (and off of) him. Of course, one of the biggest fears about a Joker origin story is that by revealing the beginnings of what might have pushed a man to become this maniacal, evil person who delights in the destruction and chaos of our standard society would be to the disadvantage of the Joker mythos; that the ambiguity around what built the Joker is what has always made his shadow both so dark and so looming. It is largely thanks to Phoenix's performance that, even though we are delivered a full narrative back to front of what could be considered a definitive take on this origin, that there is simultaneously no definitive answers given in the entirety of Phillips' film. This remaining sense of uncertainty comes from the fact the film is told completely from the perspective of Phoenix's character and - as we come to see in a few different instances - Arthur is not the most reliable of narrators. There are moments that make one question just how smart Phillips and co. are being about the level of misdirect given a few of the more heavy-handed choices featured in the final edit, but then there will be random pieces of information or visual clues that couldn't appear in the film at very specific times out of pure coincidence. In other words, it seems even in the edit that Phillips and even Phoenix in his performance from one scene to the next are in tune with intentional misdirects and how these would align in the final product so as to mask what actually happened versus what is in Arthur's head and how we are meant to interpret the difference. Is there a difference? Are we seeing two accounts melded through desire versus reality or is what we're given of a single, but potentially delusional, mind? To get too into the weeds on this is to simply devolve into a never ending theoretical debate, but it is through Phoenix's performance that such divides are able to be seen more as methodical choices than easy outs. It's not being vague for the sake of having nothing real to say, but is instead unclear with the seeming hope of trying to pay respect to the complexity of the character.
There's a scene in the film where we see Arthur stop for a moment and forget everything that is going on around him as he takes in the cheeriness of a Charlie Chaplin sequence on the big screen and it's clear this is a nod to the fact Phoenix seemingly modeled his sometimes exaggerated and whimsical movements after him which taps into the kind of duality of the character in being both this embodiment of evil while also possessing a sense of fun wickedness. It is in this same sense that Phillips has drawn from those oft repeated “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy” comparisons for his take on our title character. Meaning that, while “Joker” is a gorgeously rendered film strictly from an artistic perspective (cinematographer Lawrence Sher deserves all the accolades), it is the tone of those Martin Scorsese pictures that Phillips is drawing from more so than he is certain characters arcs or plot points. Phillips and Sher are invoking the time period not only through set dressing, wardrobe and the like, but through shooting the film as if it were a movie made during this era in which it is set. Furthermore, there are single images in the film that are not only hauntingly beautiful, but that emanate the psychological state of Arthur even further than Phoenix's performance can manage. Two that quickly come to mind are that of Arthur standing stoically in an elevator in Arkham Asylum while a patient is screaming and flailing right next to him with the other being that of a single shot in which Arthur clears out his fridge and climbs in for what could be any number of reasons one might draw from the action. To this point, there are moments and scenes in the film that made me physically uncomfortable whereas the climactic scene of the film involving Robert De Niro's late night host of a character, Murray Franklin, is one that will simultaneously leave you in both terror and awe at how Phillips and Phoenix are somehow able to pull this origin off in such a satisfactory manner while also leaving you to question the morals and ethics the film is promoting and rewarding.
To be clear though, I don't believe the film condones the actions of its main character nor does it make excuses for his actions either, but rather it provides insight as to how someone might reach this point where they feel it necessary to go to such extremes and in turn seems to encourage viewers to be a part of making sure those who might feel similar know there is sincere goodness still left in the world. Even as this is the case thematically though, Phillips still approaches the presentation of his story in such a grandiose manner that there is understanding in how it could be misconstrued as the film glorifying the actions of Arthur. There is a fine line between the abuse of power by those who it's given to and the abuse of those in power by those who want to take it away. One can hope to trust that those born into wealth and opportunity are level-headed and compassionate enough to do what is best for the majority as opposed to only their social circles, but when they aren't how are those at the bottom supposed to get any attention outside of an extreme act? Arthur was certainly pushed to the edge of desperation and therefore executed a plan that contained the only options he saw left if he was going to truly enact a shift in the city's landscape. Again, “Joker” doesn't necessarily condone the actions of its main character-though it does convey the adoration Arthur receives in such cinematic terms so as to seem as if it's praising the character for the work he's done-there is this inescapable feeling that Phillips shot the character in this light so as to heighten the mythos of this insanely popular comic book character giving fans of both Batman, the Joker and their legendary dynamic the kind of origin and moment that lived up to the cultural impact the characters have already had rather than for the purposes of making a political statement or serving some kind of social commentary. And so, while the film chronicles this descent into madness of a mentally ill individual it in fact offers the opposite message in how to treat people who might be faced with such internal struggles or complications. Sure, put a smile on your face, but also-if you can-put a smile on someone else's face who might need it more-all the better.