One of the most highly anticipated movies of 2019 is finally here. Joker is written and directed by Todd Phillips and stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck/Joker. The film is an origin story for a character whose past has often been murky at best and completely unknown at worst. Many comics and films lack a lot of detail when telling the story of who the Joker was before he was Batman‘s arch-nemesis.
Sometimes Joker admits that he remembers his past differently each time he tries to recount it. Other times, he purposely lies about who he was. Joker has been a gangster, a chemist, and a comedian. Regardless of his start, he has always ended up as an agent of chaos. Joker is no different than many of its comics and film ancestors in trying to tell Joker’s origin story.
However, what makes Joker special is the real-world application of how someone so brutal, manic, and violent can be created.
The Birth Of The Joker In Joaquin Phoenix
Arthur Fleck is a man down on his luck living in gruesome Gotham city. He works as a clown for hire to try and bring joy to others that he is lacking within himself. Struggling to cope with mental illness and pseudobulbar affect (a condition in which a person laughs uncontrollably regardless of how they’re actually feeling), Arthur is outwardly different.
This makes him a target for physical and mental abuse at the hands of an ailing society. Instead of falling into a batch of bubbly, green acid and transforming into one of the world’s most famous supervillains. Arthur Fleck falls into a toxic society and emerges as the Clown Prince of Crime.
Joaquin Phoenix Gives A Phenomenal Performance
Despite its very bleak topics, Joker is gorgeous and Joaquin Phoenix is riveting to watch. Phoenix is in almost every single shot and stands out as a splash of color in a world of grey. He gives his all and shows his wide range of acting skills. He is nervous, anxious, and meek as Arthur Fleck and angry, malevolent, and confident as the Joker. The descent into madness that Arthur experiences are a slow burn and Joaquin Phoenix hits every beat on the way down perfectly.
Joaquin Phoenix performs a multitude of beautifully creepy dance numbers that reflect where Arthur is in his mental state. Arthur’s dances start off slow, a sort of hypnotic dark ballet, as he’s experiencing his first taste of power from the subway encounter. The dance progresses to an explosive number on a staircase as he steps fully into his confidence and dons the makeup and costume of the Joker. The dance is accompanied by a daunting score composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir that helps give the film a feeling of devastation.
One of the best scenes in the film is when Arthur/Joker is talking to himself in his living room and mimicking the movements of someone on TV. It is absolutely chilling. Phoenix is able to put the audience in suspense, wondering what is going to happen next. His gritty portrayal of the Joker is most definitely Oscar-worthy.
The Audience Is Called To Question Their Morality
The film challenges the audience to question their morality and take an inner look at themselves. With topics like mental illness, violence, and poverty driving the film, it’s hard to shy away from. Funding cuts prohibit Arthur Fleck from getting his much-needed therapy sessions and medications. It is shocking to think about how low on the scale of important mental health is to this society. Arthur killed a group of men in a subway car as a result of them beating him.
At first glance, it feels like an in-the-moment act of self-defense, but once one of the men escapes and tries to run Arthur chases him down and shoots him in the back. The act of self-defense quickly turns into execution. The situation is no longer black and white, but the audience is encouraged to root for it anyway. “They’ve got what they deserve” type mentality, but at what point is it okay to accept violence? Is it ever okay to accept violence? Arthur continues to use violence to self medicate to the point of no return.
Violence makes him feel powerful, confident, and in control. As someone who felt as if he was invisible before, violence is freeing to Arthur and he feels no remorse. Is a rough, abusive life an excuse? Does Arthur get a pass? Joaquin Phoenix is believable in his portrayal of a man who believes violence to be his only way out of a painful existence. At the beginning of the film, you feel sorry for Arthur. Towards the end, you feel afraid of him.
Joker’s Dark Comedy Puts Society On Display
The film’s dark comedy gets its audience to laugh at horrible things. When Arthur is in transition into becoming the joker, two of his old coworkers Randall and Gary come to visit him. Arthur brutally murders Randall as an act of revenge. Arthur tells Gary that he is free to go because he’s always been nice to Arthur. Gary tries to leave, but he can’t reach the latch on the door.
He’s a little person and the latch is too high. The audience roars with laughter at the little person, scared out of his mind who believes his life is in danger. Laughter is also cued in moments where Arthur mimes shooting himself and talking about robbing a bank after stalking a neighbor. Situations that clearly aren’t funny cause us to laugh. Why is that?
Our Part In Healing An Ailing Society
Joker ends in a classist riot inspired by Arthur Fleck’s killings. Others living in poverty in Gotham see Arthur (now the Joker) as a vigilante. Joker is a symbol for everyone in Gotham who feels invisible and crushed by the wealthy class. The means in which Joker got to this point were awful and not entirely warranted, yet the final scenes feel satisfying. This brings the audience’s morality further into question. Joker is a creative character piece that feels very real.
Joaquin Phoenix’s astounding performance calls on its audience to witness injustices and ask themselves what part they play in creating a toxic society. If it takes an entire village to raise a child then perhaps it takes an entire society to care for its citizens. It’s important to recognize how we treat those different than us and be compassionate when we don’t understand someone.
Arthur Fleck was responsible for his own actions, he’s not a good guy, but there’s a possibility that we aren’t either. Even with its dark subject matter, Joker is an incredible experience at the theater.