Movie Review: ‘Joker’

Director: Todd Phillips

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen

Plot: Arthur Fleck is a mentally disturbed comedian and clown who feels consistently downtrodden by the oppressive society he lives in. As he spirals further into madness his behaviour begins to have a larger ramifications.

Review: Ever since the passing of Heath Ledger following his show-stopping and terrifying portrayal of the Joker, the character has become more than a little iconic, almost mythical in the realm of pop culture. Suicide Squad rushed into making him more merchandisable and certain corners of the internet have adopted him as an avatar for their edgelord tantrums. Perhaps it was inevitable that a solo Joker film would appear, but this is an interesting way to approach things.

Joker is a huge departure from Todd Phillip’s usual type of film – that being juvenile comedies – and has emulated the look and feel of early Martin Scorsese, de Niro and all. Gotham is the New York of yesteryear, tinted in a murky yellow and piled high with garbage and rats. Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is having a hard time of it, being the victim of street violence and suffering from mental illnesses that make his behaviour erratic and off-putting. Arthur bursts into uncontrollable laughter regardless of his mood and struggles to connect with people. Apart from aspiring towards being a comedian his life revolves around caring for his mother (Conroy) and watching his favourite talk show starring Murray Frankin (de Niro).

After losing his job and being mocked on TV by his hero, Fleck is beginning to spiral. A confrontation with drunk yuppies on the subway turns violent, with Fleck murdering his attackers, prompting a social movement against the rich and powerful by protesters who have adopted clown masks. As tensions in the city approach breaking point, Fleck’s sanity begins to break and he disconnects further from reality.

From the opening scene this is a great looking movie. It’s a strange amalgamation of DC comics and Taxi Driver. Phillips seems to know that he’s going to under scrutiny with this film, given his filmography and the brand recognition, and he’s put a lot of thought into how to set up every frame. He’s succeeded in building a character study of an irreversibly damaged human being trapped in an uncaring and outright hostile world, beaten down until he lashes out and causes chaos. Phoenix is excellent in a physically demanding role and gives the well known characters a unique spin.

In spite of all the effort put into the film there’s some weird approach to the morality at the heart of it all. We’ve seen that there are lonely and angry people out there who look to characters like the Joker as a misguided inspiration, and sometimes they take violent actions in order to make people notice them. The message of this film is that you can rally a whole city to rise against the system by acting like an uncontrollable asshole. All you have to do is act edgy enough. That’s not to say that Joker is portrayed as a hero in any way, he’s a gross and wretched figure, but he’s usually portrayed as an outright villain and people have still gravitated towards him.

The links to the wider Batman universe is perplexing. Thomas Wayne (Cullen) is a powerful business leader and mayoral candidate who becomes the focus of the anti-wealthy movement of the masses. They even set up a ripple effect wherein (SPOILERS BE HERE) people inspired by Joker wind up killing Thomas and Martha Wayne, setting in motion the creation of Batman. If this is a stand-alone story there’s no reason to include the Waynes, and if you do include them this means that Batman will eventually be facing a 65+ year old Joker. There is, in fact, a sense that a younger actor was intended for the role rather than the middle aged Phoenix throughout the film. It would explain the love interest being in her 20s against an actor in his 40s.

This is a good movie about an insane person losing their limited grip on reality, but it’s debatable wether or not it needed to be about The Joker. As it is, it feels like a gritty, dirty character study painted in a mainstream box office varnish. It’s a good film, but it hasn’t rewritten the book on how to make adult focused comic movies. Logan does it better.

Rating: SEVEN out of TEN