Watched: Jan. 7th, 2020
Director – Todd Phillips
Starring – Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Brett Cullen, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy
Before we begin, I must warn you that I’m a major Joaquin Phoenix fanboy. I absolutely love his work. When I found out he’d be interpreting the greatest comic book villain of all-time, I was ecstatic. My expectations for a film have rarely been higher. As a result, I may come across too critical and need to convey first that this film is excellent. It is singular in focus, meticulously crafted to elicit a certain response and I’d dare say it hits its mark with deadly accuracy.
This review won’t be “10 ways Joker reminds me of Taxi Driver” or “A shot by shot analysis of Joker and Cape Fear,” although those would probably be interesting reads. I can see the connections to the Scorsese/De Niro classics but I feel there’s enough of something new in this film that to call it knock off isn’t honest.
The colors, the sounds, the smells (you could almost smell this movie), of the world was as real as it was exaggerated. Dark, dingy, dank, and disturbing are only a few words that start with the letter “d” that describe Todd Phillip‘s take on Pre-Batman Gotham. The “trash strike” which sets the tone for Arthur Fleck’s (Phoenix) world seems completely plausible in any large American city and probably not conditions too far removed from the current disaster in downtown San Francisco.
Arkham Asylum has long been a source for the darker, edgier Batman-related material and it played an important role in Fleck’s transformation. Exploration of the criminally insane has been the subject of a great number of visceral films. Characters like Hannibal Lector, Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), Spacey’s “John Doe” from Se7en, and others have spooked and chilled moviegoers for decades. The Joker has always been the comic book archetype of this type of antagonist. Scheming, obsessive, and maniacal the “Clown Prince of Crime” exploded into Batman’s stories laughing gleefully. His chaotic nature stands the perfect foil for Batman’s heightened preparedness. Phillips and Phoenix, however, took a slightly different look at the character.
Fleck is a sick and abused man. He lives from pill to pill in the slums of Gotham only finding the slightest relief behind the mask of his job as a clown. He hasn’t quite given up but it’s not entirely clear why. Something about his character pushes him to the next soul-crushing encounter in a life seemingly full of them. The laughing condition, a real disease called the Pseudobulbar Affect, steals any sense of societal normalcy from Fleck, pushing him into dangerous levels of isolation and vulnerability. While it’s merely implied, I see a sort of feedback loop develop, where he can’t stop laughing when he shouldn’t until he realizes that laughing is all he can do.
The biggest divergence from what I’ll call the “classic” Joker is that Fleck’s descent into violence is almost understandable. Sure, the reasons, the justifications he gives, are insanely narcissistic, politically convenient, and utterly psychopathic; but (and that’s a big but) right before he puts the bullet in De Niro’s face he mumbles a joke in the form of a hypothetical question which captures the why for this Joker:
What do you get when you cross a mentally-ill loner with a system than abandons him and treats him like trash?
That’s too on the nose. Like the Joker is some sort of American Guy Fawkes. A symbol for the proletariat to rally around, rise up, and cut down the fat cats, symbolized by the tone-deaf super-rich politician Thomas Wayne. The weakest moment of the film is the speech leading up to the killer joke. He whines and he pouts, he blames the mean people, he blames the rich, he blames the powerful, he blames his abusive family, he blames the Waynes, he blames the ignorant masses, he blames everyone but himself. As the viewer, can I point to anything he could’ve done differently? Certainly not, Fleck’s path had two outcomes, both bloody and both bad.
If I had been asked to write this film, which is really a missed opportunity for everyone involved, the Joker would’ve been a little more bad. I’ve made that comment to some other people and I always get a bit of laugh, I mean he brutally murders several people and launches a riot and its not evil enough? Yes. It’s too explainable. It’s too understandable. His selfishness is something a sliver of me can relate to. If I was Arthur Fleck, I’d kinda want to bash that guy’s head in too. That’s not the typical portrayal of the Joker. He’s different than you and me, he’s pure evil, he’s the Devil. He blows stuff up and gets the giggles. That makes Fleck a little scarier than the Mark Hamil’s cackling maniac or even Heath Ledger’s scheming mastermind because plausible evil is always scarier than make-believe.
A sequel has been rumored. Phoenix, in his particular way, has seemed open to the idea. There is indication at this point that Phoenix’s Joker would not appear in the Robert Pattison led The Batman and instead another actor such as Willem Dafoe or Adrian Brody will take up the character. The complaints I have with Phillips’ film are mostly related to the fact that this character is so familiar and his divergences really alter the perspective in a way I don’t particularly like. As a result, I am very interested in seeing more of Arthur Fleck and how that characterization will challenge my notions of the Joker. I find the idea of Pattison’s Batman (assuming he lives up to my expectations) facing off with Phoenix’s Joker pretty tantalizing.