Joker: A Gritty, Thought-Provoking Character Study
Writer/director Todd Phillips brings a rich and complex character study to the comic book film with Joker, a gritty and grounded standalone origin story about Batman’s most iconic villain. Equal parts despicable and human and adorned with a phenomenal career-defining performance from Joaquin Phoenix, Joker causes us to see aspects of ourselves and our world in the tragic flaws of its protagonist, which makes his tumble down the rabbit hole of madness that much more real.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) feels as small as his last name seems to suggest. He’s a clown-for-hire and an aspiring stand-up comedian; although, he’s not very good at either. He’s not particularly funny, but he does suffer from a bizarre mental condition that fills him with uncontrollable laughter. He’s unwell and dependent upon a system that neither cares about him personally or has the ability to adequately treat him. On top of that, he’s the sole caretaker for his mother, and he lives in a dangerously fractured world that amplifies his anxieties and distorted thinking. He’s a man out of sync with the times in every possible sense and teetering on the edge of delusion. Collapsing under the pressures of the world and beat down on life, Arthur is a ticking time bomb on the verge of exploding. He’s been hiding behind a mask of what he thinks society wants to see, but he’s about to awaken his true identity and put his happy face on…
Joker has been labeled as “incendiary” and “dangerous”, but many of the folks who claim this either don’t understand what the film was trying to do or haven’t actually seen it. It’s not a call to action (particularly violence), and it’s not an empathy piece for real-world white male monsters. It definitely gets us to empathize with Arthur, his feelings, and circumstances, but it never champions any of his violent acts. At its core, it’s both a scathing critique and a cautionary tale about our times and the monsters it can create, intentionally and unintentionally. It’s not trying to inspire people that feel like Arthur to act out; it’s about how society, the system, and a little bit of bad luck and circumstance can manufacture monsters that act out violently in retaliation. The sad truth is it’s too easy for those individuals to feel as if the world has failed them and that violence is the only way to make their internal pain understood, and the film wants to explore that feeling and its potential formation(s).
It’s a film about a bad guy, and it leans into the BAD with all its weight, creating a complex and morally conflicted protagonist similar to films like Falling Down, Scarface, Death Wish, and A Clockwork Orange, with notes of Dog Day Afternoon, Psycho, and Network. It’s also absolutely indebted to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, both of which depict main characters who are gravely out of touch with the worlds in which they inhabit. This may be a turn off to some folks, but we felt that Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver used these references with a specific purpose, which worked extremely well within Joker’s premise. The King of Comedy inclusion added an interesting layer to the film, particularly because of Robert De Niro’s character Murray Franklin, who feels like an extension of Rupert Pupkin which adds to the film’s delirium. Phillips also does a really nice job of playing with reality and non-reality in a very King of Comedy way, which effectively places the viewer in Arthur’s headspace, leaving them to untangle perceived reality versus delusion.
One way in which the film is truly incendiary is in Phoenix’s marvelous performance. He wholeheartedly embodies Arthur Fleck and presents cinema goers and comic book fanatics with a nuanced Joker performance, the likes of which we’ve never seen. He dials in a Master-caliber performance, and he fills the Joker’s comically oversized shoes with a surprising amount of pathos and a quietly boiling darkness. He brings a lot of physicality to the role, creating awkward movements and mannerisms that further solidify Arthur as a man out of joint with his times. He also gives the role a performance art quality that’s used to superbly express the inner delusions of the character in an outward way, and that laugh… it’s just pitch-perfect.
A lot of what the film does, we felt it did exceptionally well. The only aspects that really didn’t work for us were the comic book elements, which felt shoehorned onto Arthur’s story and came across as silly fan service. The way in which it fundamentally links key Batman characters and their origins together felt like it was too much. Really, outside of the Wayne’s being a symbol of rich elitism, everything involving Arthur and the them felt unnecessary and didn’t do too much to enhance the story; it just made Arthur’s background more convoluted (which was probably the point). It also ran a touch too long and missed the best possible ending (in our opinion), but the one it eventually lands on is OK.
At the end of the day, from where we’re standing, Joker is a damn fine film, one that recalls the hard-edged films of the 70s that left things to the viewer’s imagination and interpretation. It’s a film that’s all about presenting information and posing questions that it rightfully doesn’t bother answering; it’s up to each viewer to contemplate the experience and arrive to their own conclusion(s). It definitely gets you to think about the effects our society/media can have on individuals, and how humorless, out of touch psychos can find a delusional sense of validation in a confused world, which may cause them to find a like-minded audience. It’s a terrifying and compelling sight to behold, but then again, watching a character straddle the line between man and monster always is.
Recommendation: If you like dark and complex characters studies and love big budget blockbusters designed to make you think, give this a watch and join the discussion!
Rating: 4.5 happy faces outta 5.
What did you think? Were you blown away by the film, or did it rub you the wrong way? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!