I think I can safely say that Joker has been, without a doubt, the most controversial film of the year. With its depictions of rabid violence, societal instability, deteriorating mental health and, erm, divisive music choice, there was never any doubt really. Critics were divided on it, either calling it one of the greatest films of all time, or one of the most insensitive, garnering it a surprisingly low 69% on Rotten Tomatoes. So what do I think? I think it’s bloody brilliant, and here’s why…
Mr Fleck I Presume?
If I am to pile on the praise for this film, then what better place to start than it’s troubled protagonist, Mr Arthur Fleck. Arthur is a citizen of Gotham, a trash pile of a city, where the poor turn to crime and the rich exploit them. Not a good place for the mentally unstable to reside then is it. Unfortunately for Arthur, he doesn’t have a choice, as he’s stuck there looking after his elderly mother. Right from the get-go, the film holds nothing back in helping the audience feel sympathy for Arthur, as he is regularly abused, mistreated and forgotten by those around him. The poor guy can never seem to catch a break, with unfortunate events regularly chaining up for him, as if his life is nothing but a stack of dominoes. For example, at the start of the film, Arthur is performing on the street as a clown, when a bunch of kids beat him and steal his sign. He is accused of stealing the sign for himself, putting his job at risk. His friend at work proceeds to give him a gun for self-defence, which of course falls out of his pocket when performing for kids. Alas, he loses his job. What a life.
Of course, carrying us through the depths and darkness of society is Joaquin Phoenix with his powerhouse performance. Every little detail from his facial expressions to the way he moves, is spot on, with Phoenix never letting up for a single moment he’s on-screen. This level of acting creates a sense of immersion unlike any other, and this simply adds to director Todd Phillips haunting vision, as there is nothing scarier than something that could really happen. Fleck can be shyly reclusive in one scene, to incredibly cocky in the next, and its all seamless, in the way that nothing the character does is ever out of place. He can convey sympathy from the audience in one scene, and disgust in the next. You watch with sort of a gross fascination, wondering what this unstable and unpredictable man might do next, as his broken mind takes him from one misguided action to the next. This concept as a whole creates the idea that Phillips also likely intended this film to be a statement on the way society views mental health, with a sort of morbid curiosity.
Of course, the best way to explore a character is through their relationships, and Arthur’s social interactions provide many an interesting moment. There are several key figures in Arthur’s life, and each one allows a different side of him to be explored. Firstly there’s his mother. There is no one on the planet that Arthur loves more than his mother, and he becomes a very different person when he’s around her. He hides his insecurities and depravations to become the caring and loveable son he knows she wants him to be. Phillips utilises Fleck’s mother to show the loving side of Arthur, to show that even with all the rubbish he goes through, he can still always put a smile on his face for her. Then there’s Sophie, the “girl next door” who Arthur immediately falls for, and by some godly stroke of luck, she loves him too. They go on dates together, she watches his comedy show, they make love, and most importantly, she’s there for him when he needs her most. Sophie shows Arthur’s social development in showing care and compassion for others, overcoming his fears of mistreatment. Finally, there is Arthur’s idol, Murray. Portrayed by cultural icon Robert de Niro, Murray is a late-night show host, who represents everything Arthur wants to be: he’s funny, and people love him. Arthur looks up to him more than anyone else in the world and dreams of nothing more than meeting him. All three of these people are incredibly important to the film, and Arthur as a person.
Then it all goes wrong: Arthur loves his mother, but finds out she’s been lying to him. He investigates into her past, and find out that she abused him as a child. He kills her, because his life is a comedy and she isn’t very funny anymore. Arthur loves Sophie, so he pays her a visit one day. She doesn’t know who he is, so Arthur leaves her because his life is a comedy and she isn’t willing to be the supporting act. Arthur idolises Murray, but Murray mocks Arthur on live television, so Arthur gives up on Murray because his life is a comedy and Murray doesn’t get the joke. These three events I just relayed to you, and how disjointed they are to the three characters I just described in the prior paragraph shows the sheer genius of Joker’s story: there is no happiness for Arthur Fleck. Everyone he cares about turns on him, hurts him or betrays him. How he reacts to these events, however, is when Arthur starts to become slightly less sympathetic and a lot more scary. He fails to recognise that his mother is also mentally ill, and blames all her actions upon her as a person, and not the actual damage inside her mind. Then there’s the Sophie twist, a slightly predictable but still ingenious plot development that reveals that Sophie and Arthur’s relationship was all a delusion in Arthur’s head. The person who brought joy to his life, the woman he could always depend on no matter what doesn’t even know who he is. As for Murray, well, we’ll come back to him later, but my point is: there is no happiness for Arthur Fleck, the film makes that abundantly clear. As long as Arthur Fleck exists, he shall find no joy in life, no greater purpose or meaning apart from sadness. Therefore he must become someone else, someone new, someone who is always smiling…
Rock And Roll
That’s the brilliance of this film: it’s not like most origin stories, where one singular chain of events leads to the character becoming who they’re destined to be. Instead, Arthur becomes Joker because his whole existence requires it. He doesn’t adopt the persona of Joker, he becomes the Joker. Arthur Fleck was quiet, shunned and abused. The Joker is something far more: a symbol. For Fleck, he represents the symbol of eternal happiness, but for the people, he is the symbol of a revolution. Phoenix wholeheartedly embraces the chaotic glee of the clown prince of crime, delivering every line in such an iconic manner that a wide grin never left my face for most of the time the Joker was on screen. Of course, the most legendary scene for the character, and the film as a whole, would have to be Rock and Roll Part 2. Although Phoenix’s Joker look was obviously included in promotional material, there is still a sense of cinematic perfection in getting to see it on screen for the first time, absorbing all the beautiful colours that stand out in an otherwise grimy colour scheme. Then, there’s the stair dance. I cannot describe the feeling I got the first time I watched this scene, witnessing Arthur unleashing all his built-up madness in one brilliant dance down a now-legendary staircase. Now that, that is cinema.
The Murray Show
Joker’s final act is without a doubt where the film comes together. Whilst everything that came before it was a slow, unsettling and deeply disturbing character study, the film all of a sudden springs to life for its climax. Phoenix is an electrifying presence as the Joker, and you can’t help but be glued to the screen, wondering what he could possibly do next due to his psychotically unpredictable nature. It’s interesting because in this time of self-acceptance and freedom, Arthur also gets to live his lifelong dream, and goes onto the Murray show to speak to the big man himself. His time on the show is nothing short of nail-biting, as Arthur slowly grows more and more agitated and irritable, whilst Murray remains foolishly stalwart, even as Fleck admits to being a murderer. Well, foolish certainly fit the description, as Murray ends up with his brains splattered across the wall, all thanks to Arthur of course.
You Wouldn’t Get It…
There is only one scene in Joker where any true doubt lies in my head, and that is its final one. After a glorious few moments of witnessing joker’s “clown uprising” and seeing him finally become the criminal leader he’s destined to be, the film then cuts to a hospital. Arthur, when asked what he’s laughing about, simply states he’s laughing at a joke that the psychiatrist wouldn’t get. One simple line flips the entire movie on its head, suddenly creating doubt as to whether any of it was real, and an overwhelming sense of ambiguity. Let me make something clear: I don’t particularly like ambiguity. On the one hand, I love hearing different interpretations and theories, it is beautiful, I’ll admit it. However, when I finish a film, I want to be able to talk to someone about what I just saw. I can’t do that if what they saw is different to me can I. This, realistically, is the only factor that stopped the film from being a 10: trying too hard to subvert.
The Joker is a once in a generation kind of film. Its the sort of cinematic perfection that movie buffs love, providing a masterful piece of art, but also grin-inducing entertainment value. Phoenix himself also holds nothing back in his hypnotically strong performance, likely captivating anyone who had the honour of seeing the film for years to come. So, if ever you’re down folks, just remember one thing: that’s life…