After countless comic appearances, several television adaptations and a handful of film portrayals, the Joker has become a pop culture icon. He easily holds the title as one of the most iconic film villains alongside heavy weights such as Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter. The Joker is even considered by some as the modern day Hamlet, as the character has attracted award-winning actors like Jack Nicolson and Heath Ledger to give their own spin on the villain. With all that said, however, it was not until this October release of “Joker” that the character has received his own standalone movie.
Director Todd Phillips’ “Joker” follows the sad and difficult life of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), the man who will eventually become the infamous Joker. Arthur begins the film as a party clown who struggles with a debilitating condition that causes him to break into uncontrollable fits of laughter. Arthur struggles with his day-to-day life as he juggles attending mandatory therapy visits for his mental condition and supporting his mother. This is all coupled with the decaying state of society in 1980’s Gotham City as trash litters the streets, the poor struggle to get by and the rich live in excessive luxury. The metropolis is a powder keg waiting to explode as class divisions and deep-seated anger boils to the brim. With these factors acting against him, Arthur succumbs to the world around him when he finally snaps and becomes the titular Joker.
The film begins as a slow burn and can easily overwhelm audiences with its bleak and cynical outlook. Nearly nothing about the Gotham City that Phillips’ constructed is redeemable; its residents have little to no regard for the wellbeing of others, social services are cut and social unrest teeters on the brink of all-out chaos. Furthermore, the film is shown from the viewpoint of Arthur, who often finds himself at the receiving end of society’s cruelty. The first half of the film primarily focuses on a series of events that contribute to Arthur’s awful life, which can be draining on audiences. Yet, the performance given by Phoenix, the beautiful cinematography and score makes the wait of the first half worth viewing.
It’s only when Arthur begins to embrace his inner evil and takes steps to become the iconic villain that the film begins to pick up pace. After a series of events chip away at Arthur’s already fragile sanity, he begins to lose control and acts out his innermost desires in often violent ways. Arthur’s actions are increasingly violent as he becomes the clown prince of crime, but not as over-the-top as audiences might be accustomed to. This means that there are no exploding limbs or excess gore; rather, the violence of “Joker” is that Arthur’s crimes are realistic enough to be unsettling and disturbing for some in today’s climate. That said, the film doesn’t go too overboard in its violence and saves it for maximum effect in critical moments. Phillips manages to further convey Arthur’s crumbling mental state as he is revealed to be an unreliable narrator. Events often occur in the film that exist only in his head, letting the audience determine how much was actually real and what was simply a figment of Arthur’s imagination. Though this may annoy audiences who want a definitive story, the manipulation of reality adds to Arthur’s character and shows how truly unhinged he is, making his descent into the crazed villain more fascinating, much like the Scorsese classic “The King of Comedy”.
No matter how well the script is written, this movie is brought to life thanks to Joaquin Phoenix’s expert portrayal of Arthur Fleck as the man who will become the Joker. His acting expertly portrays Arthur’s crumbling mental state as Phoenix gives everything to this role, which is evident with his startling weight loss that makes Arthur unsettling to look at on screen. Additionally, Phoenix crafts a truly disturbing and uncontrollable Joker laugh as the cackle is clearly painful to Arthur. There is no part of this performance that doesn’t deliver as he makes Arthur’s descent into madness believable and haunting. Phoenix expertly conveys Arthur’s growing separation from reality and utter disregard for human life with his unsettling expression as he commits merciless crimes. He manages to get audiences to feel sympathy for Arthur and the circumstances he finds himself in. Nevertheless, his performance still manages to show us that the Joker is not a hero but a deranged criminal.
Phoenix’s performance is masterful and though none managed to steal the spotlight from him, the cast of supporting characters never feels wasted. Robert De Niro’s character, talk show host Murray Franklin, is a joy to see on screen and plays a great role in one of the film’s greatest and most suspenseful scenes. Other members of the supporting cast, such as Zazie Beets and Marc Maron, pop up in no more than a few scenes but each play their role perfectly and never feel wasted.
Phillips’ “Joker” is an unsettling character study of the world-renowned comic book villain. With a beautifully haunting score and great performances from its cast, “Joker” delivers on a thought-provoking and disturbing tale of an iconic villain. However, though this film is titled “Joker,” the villain as we know it only plays a small role in the film. A more appropriate title would simply be “Arthur,” as this film shows us more of the man that would become the Joker and less of the villain himself. Although the film’s use of violence and portrayal of mental illness may very well leave some audience members feeling uneasy afterward, it’ll leave viewers thinking about it long after they leave the theater. Audience members will certainly pick apart every aspect of the film and its climactic ending.
Verdict: “Joker” delivers on a disturbing character study of the iconic Joker. Joaquin Phoenix’s take on the deranged clown is breathtaking and the overall story is thought-provoking and ripe for interpretation. This is a film that will stick with you long after your first viewing.