So, it’s 2:45 AM & I just got home from a midnight showing of JOKER. The film honestly isn’t that long but afterwards; myself & a few friends just sat in the parking lot and talked about what we just watched.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is an aspiring stand-up who works as a professional clown, performing on street corners and at children’s hospitals. His shifty manner and a verbal tic – a high, cackling laugh he can’t control – have reduced his daily existence to a series of escalating humiliations. Fleck (how easily the noun attaches itself to dirt, or blood) has no friends, or prospects, or talent. He’s prone to tremendous rage and tremendous self-pity; a flammable combination even without his mental health issues and the gun a coworker casually hands him.
Arthur lives with his mother, who once worked for billionaire Thomas Wayne and still believes he’ll lift them out of their sad lives (a scene with young Bruce is all the fan service this film provides). But Wayne is more concerned with his mayoral run, which hinges on a promise to rid Gotham City (a stand-in for New Jersey) of poverty and crime. If an unhinged loner obsessed with a politician running for office sounds like another film you know, well, that’s not the only Taxi Driver reference in Joker. The Gotham of this film, set in 1981, is a hellscape resembling Scorsese’s '70s New York, all garbage and strip bars. Arthur has the same inarticulate anger as Travis Bickle; both find purpose in violent action. But Travis’ violence finds a specific target, whereas Arthur is lashing out against a society that he feels deserves it.
Does the film agree with him? Joker doesn’t seem in control of this crucial detail. Director Todd Phillips would probably argue that his film is a critique of gun control in America, that it demonstrates how even the mentally ill have always been able to easily access firearms. Yet, there’s so much justification provided for Arthur’s rage that when it explodes in a shocking scene on the subway, we’re clearly meant to explode with it, to cheer the transformation of put-on clown into potent Joker. The critique sits uneasily with the catharsis, as we see again when another brutal bout of violence is alleviated by a comic ending.
Phillips is best known as the director of Old School and the Hangover trilogy. Apart from 2016's War Dogs, he’s shown little inclination towards dramatic material till now, which might be why, instead of working out his own aesthetic for this film, he simply borrows Scorsese’s. The Taxi Driver moments feel less like tributes than wholesale lifts, from Arthur’s rants about a filthy, immoral city to his fooling around, gaunt and shirtless, with a loaded gun in his home. Scorsese’s The King of Comedy casts a similarly long shadow, with Arthur obsessed, as Robert De Niro’s aspiring showbiz-hopeful was, with a talk show host. Both films have the central character admit to perpetrating a crime on live TV. And the host in Phillips’ film is played by De Niro.
“I just hope my death makes more sense than my life," Arthur tells a social services employee. Later, he complains: “I don’t think you ever really hear me." You could string together a dozen of his lines and get a suicide note, or something more sinister. “For my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed," he says. “But I do, and people are starting to notice." This is mass-shooter language. It makes me wonder if Phillips remembered while writing this that the Aurora theatre shooter had referred to himself as “The Joker", and whether he ever considered that he might be fashioning another role model.
As the Joker himself would say, ‘we live in a society’ where the mainstream superhero film has become saturated. It’s rare to see something fresh, or with creative liberty that’s a part of the genre. However, Todd Phillips breaks those rules with Joker by prioritizing the making of art rather than product and it’s a terrifying take on the iconic character. However, in particular, what is so refreshing about this is the fact that it feels so unlike anything else we’ve seen in this genre.
As mentioned, Phillips & crew are really on top of things here. Phillip’s direction and screenplay are incredibly immersive in the way they suck you into this world – and with every passing frame, the viewer gets more and more unsettled. Both the fact that all the technical aspects of this are top notch, as well as the fact that the story is so uniquely told allow the viewer to be truly invested throughout the whole film. As Joker descends further into madness, it becomes so dark that it almost feels like a horror film.
No surprise here, but Joker sees Joaquin Phoenix gives the performance of a lifetime here as the Joker a.k.a. Arthur Fleck. His portrayal of the renowned character balances authenticity towards the source material as well as a fresh spin that we haven’t really seen before. As the climax approaches, and he becomes what we know him to be, the audience becomes genuinely petrified.
In the end, Joker is difficult to talk about for two reasons. For one, nearly everything works and explaining each individual aspect would take hours. As well, the film’s emotional impact has left this writer speechless.