Disturbing. That’s really the only word that comes to mind when attempting to process my thoughts on Joker. Did I like it? I don’t know. Not really. Did I not like it? No. It’s okay. Am I glad I saw it? Yes, but only because I wanted to be able to respond with first-hand knowledge to the hoopla over whether it might somehow incite violence; and, I wanted to know if Joaquin Phoenix’s performance might be deserving of awards consideration, as many have already suggested. I’ll get to that. But first, a warning of sorts about the film for anyone who might be expecting a typical action-packed DC Comics ‘super-hero’ or ‘super-villain’ movie. It’s not that. In DC Comics fashion, it does skew dark. But there are no heroes. No superpowers. No joy.
Joker offers up an original backstory for the maniacal clown-faced villain who would become Batman’s greatest nemesis. He’s Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a societal outcast with an undefined mental illness who is struggling to find his way in a bleak and fractured Gotham City. He’s a clown-for-hire by day, and aspiring stand-up comic by night. He lives in a dumpy apartment building where he cares for his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), a sickly woman who’s always writing unanswered letters to her former employer, wealthy mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne. Ring any (Bat) bells?
Arthur is the type of guy who gets beaten down, literally and figuratively, until he reaches a breaking point that sets off a chain of events that will come to define his twisted character. The social system fails him; he goes off his meds; he’s mocked by his hero, late night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro); he’s smitten with an attractive neighbor (Zazie Beetz) down the hall; and he desperately wants to be “seen” in a world that seems to shun him at every turn. And he’s got some serious psychological issues that warp into violence. Joker is a gritty character study that takes inspiration from movies like Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, Dog Day Afternoon and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Serious cinephiles will find plenty to chew on. Others will want to run for the nearest rom-com.
That brings me back to the reasons I cited earlier for wanting to see Joker, even if it does weigh heavy on the psyche. Joaquin Phoenix will get nominated for all sorts of awards. He commits himself fully to the part of Arthur/Joker and delivers a performance that is complex as well as physically transforming, i.e. all the stuff Oscar voters love to reward.
But what about all the controversy, amid concerns that Joker could inspire real-life violence? It’s not entirely misguided. Yes, Joker is just a movie. And yes, there are far more violent films in theaters now and always. But there is something uniquely disconcerting about the way this Joker inspires the lunatic fringe, and the joy he takes in inadvertently launching a movement that sees throngs of angry and disenfranchised people donning clown masks to go on a rampage. Times are tough enough as is. Turn on the Bat Signal. We need a hero. Not a joker.
Arty Chick weighs in: I agree with Mainstream Chick’s adjective. Joker is definitely Disturbing. And Joaquin Phoenix will absolutely receive all sorts of nominations and awards. And deservedly so. His Joker is a fully inhabited psycho. You feel sorry for him and you’re appalled at the same time. And once you know Arthur’s backstory you understand how he became the damaged man he is. And the script makes his final transformation plausible, but…
Let’s cut to Heath Ledger’s Joker, which is clearly the starting point for this character. Those others – Jack Nicholson, Cesar Romero, Jared Leto – were just jesters, not the dark and twisted anti-hero of this iteration. But Ledger’s Joker was brilliant and I can’t say that Phoenix’s has the wherewithal to take over the city and take on Batman. Maybe with a lot of the meds he can’t get. And maybe with the help of his masked minions. I don’t know.
Gotham is a sick and dark place I wouldn’t want to live in, particularly before little Bruce Wayne grows up. (Was it just me or did it feel like New York in the 70s?) I waited through the credits to see if there was a tease for any further adventures with this Joker, but they’re mum on any more of the franchise with this particular character. If they keep him for another Batman flick, who could he be matched up with? Bale? Someone new?
I can’t say I liked this movie. I won’t soon forget it though, and I sure did appreciate it’s smart script and Phoenix’s amazing performance. And I don’t think it’s a call to violence. I think it’s a call for a kinder, less violent society that doesn’t create these kinds of monsters. Calling all superheroes!