A gritty character study of Arthur Fleck, a man disregarded by society.
Making his debut in 1940 on Batman #1 as an unidentified serial killer, The Joker went through several backstories for the first few decades, usually always a variation of being a criminal called the Red Hood who is attacked by Batman and accidentally falls into a vat of chemicals which turns his skin white and gives him a permanent smile.
Then in 1988, acclaimed graphic novel writer Alan Moore and illustrator Brian Bolland released The Killing Joke, where the duo attempted to give him a definitive origin and envisioned the villain as tragic figure. A failing comedian who, after losing his wife and child, is forced into a life of crime and finds himself being severely disfigured after trying to escape from Batman.
But the greatest influence The Killing Joke would have is when The Joker mentions the following regarding his past:
“Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.”
This idea became a cornerstone in his development as artists were free to play around with different variations without ever having to respect a single backstory while maintaining what would become the essence of his character; mystery and chaos.
Now, after watching it two times, I am certain of one thing. Presenting the origin story for The Joker was highly unnecessary because it strips the character from his mystery. But in the grand tradition of a medium that is full of “one shot” graphic novels and alternate stories, another interpretation of a known and loved character can be accepted.
To his credit, director Todd Phillips has captured that unreliable narrator aspect from the comics, giving us a schizophrenic and ambiguous narrative into the dark and demented recesses of not only one damaged man, but of a broken society as well.
However, the tragic journey of Arthur Fleck into becoming the madman called Joker does feel like a necessary parable to be explored for our times.
As we all expected, the number one reason to watch this is Joaquin Phoenix’s masterful performance as Fleck/Joker. What he has done with this tragic figure is nothing short of amazing and deserves to go down as one of the most iconic roles of the last decade just the same as with his predecessor.
Phoenix has the ability to act without calling attention to his acting, lending his performances with an air of reality and humanity, which is an even bigger feat when you consider that in the hands of almost any other actor, Arthur Fleck/Joker could have been woefully mishandled by ACTING – you know, Sean Penn in I Am Sam or Eddie Redmayne in… anything.
We all knew what to expect of Phoenix. But what about the rest of the movie?
The direction is undoubtedly excellent, with Phillips and DP Lawrence Sher creating beautiful and haunting imagery, bringing 1970’s Gotham city to life. It’s obvious that the director has a passion for this story and a clear vision of what he wanted to bring to the table in such a populated genre.
Unfortunately what it has in passion and technical greatness, it’s missing in originality as it leans into its influences a little too heavily for my taste. Stories and plot points from Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy – the two clearest influences that have been mentioned repeatedly by the production team and which coincidentally feature two of co-star Robert DeNiro’s greatest performances) are lifted almost verbatim.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with showing your influences as every director – even Martin Scorsese – has someone they’ve admired and even taken from, but they are able to developed their own voice. With this being Philip’s second Scorsese-lite film (the other being War Dogs) I can’t help but get the feeling that here Phillips was looking more to impress the acclaimed director than the audience.
Of course, it probably doesn’t really matter as most of the target audience for this movie won’t ever remember those classics, yet this shouldn’t excuse the filmmaker from not trying to find his own voice rather than borrowing someone else’s.
Yes, this is a very different kind of “superhero” film as its strictly a drama with not much of an action scene or explosion in sight. But even within it’s own genre it doesn’t have many new things to say, with themes like the fine line of morality that separates a hero from a villain having been explored in Unbreakable or even The Dark Knight.
Nonetheless, the themes (though not fresh) are handled very well, effectively mixing the dissection of important and real topics such as mental illness, loneliness, abuse, neglect and the negative effects that relationships – individual or with society in general – have on us with larger ideas from the mythology of superheroes.
Although it should already be obvious that this is not for children or a young audience, the truth is that the violence is nothing we haven’t seen before nor does it take too much of the movie’s duration. What does permeate throughout the story is how uneasy, uncomfortable and heartbroken (in the best way possible) it leaves you.
Hildur Guðnadóttir’s moody score amplifies these feelings with her minimal and tense musical landscape, focusing on presenting us Arthur’s worldview through monotonic and tragic melodies comprised of stabbing cellos and pounding drums.
I realize it appears as if I disliked more aspects of this movie than what I liked, but I do want to make clear that its filmmaking, no matter how derivative, is still expertly achieved.
Perhaps the most important element will be the conversations it inspires. Being difficult and challenging, Joker stays with you after you leave the movie theater, making you ponder some very complex ideas.
Ultimately, Joker is much more an interesting film than an outright great one, and many times it’s better to be an interesting one rather than just a good one. After all, there’s a reason more people remember Fight Club (which was largely disregarded by critics and awards alike) than American Beauty (winning several Academy Awards).
Joaquin Phoenix has gifted us with a career defining performance and Phillips has crafted a visually beautiful, tragic and haunting tale which is unfortunately brought slightly down by its dependence on its influences and slight lack of originality. Despite this, Joker stands as an important film for our generation and one that is bound to become a classic.
“Madness is like gravity. All it takes is a little push”.The Joker in The Dark Knight