While speaking with his mother, Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck turns to his mother and says, “I used to think that my life was a tragedy. But now, I realize it’s a comedy.” Arthur may be smiling, but the audience cowers in fear as they watch a man embrace his inner demons and become one of the world’s most famous villains, the Joker.
*This article will have light spoilers. However, it will not discuss major plot points.
Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill man who has been humiliated and disregarded by society in Gotham City circa 1981. Arthur, who has little to no money, is a clown for hire who dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian. Arthur cares for and lives with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), who is both mentally and physically ill. The duo both share a love and obsession for acclaimed late-night host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), who they watch every night on television. Franklin inadvertently becomes a catalyst for Arthur’s violent turn after the late-night comedian poked fun at Arthur’s standup. When Arthur and Murray finally meet, it’s suspenseful and downright terrifying because Arthur finally goes off the deep end. However, not all things are bad for Fleck as he’s able to strike up a relationship with Sophie (Zazie Beetz), who lives down the hall.
The entire film rests on the protruding backbone of Phoenix, who lost 52 pounds for the role. There’s going “all in” for a role, and then there’s what Phoenix did. Phoenix completely immersed himself into the mind of a mentally ill and deranged man who turns to unspeakable actions of violence. The way Phoenix contorts his body and maniacally laughs is both disturbing and unsettling, but also spellbinding. Phoenix expertly toes the line between a sympathetic and hopeful Arthur to a twisted and demented Joker. Phoenix, a three-time Academy Award nominee, terrifies and dazzles in a performance that will most certainly be nominated for Best Actor.
At the very beginning, there is some sympathy for Arthur after witnessing how society made him feel inconsequential and inferior. All of that sympathy is a credit to Phoenix’s ability to connect with the audience. That being said, the sympathy disappears as Joker reminds the audience that it’s a character study into the mind of a monster. Arthur is a murderous psychopath who commits heinous crimes that are unforgivable. Joker is a look into how a man could break bad and turn into a nihilistic outlaw who shows no remorse for his actions.
For the first time, the Joker is not the calculated criminal that Jack Nicholson and the late Heath Ledger, whose legendary performance earned an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, portrayed. In fact, Batman is not even here to save the day. Joker is the origin story about how the villainous clown became a murderous criminal. This version of the Joker is not a mastermind. There’s never a moment where the Joker becomes the strategic genius that will rule Gotham. From the start, Arthur is suffering from a severe mental illness and the film never strays away from that fact.
Had it not been for a handful of references to the Wayne family and Gotham City, Joker would be a standalone film about a dark, damaged outcast from society. The film is actually better when it steers away from the comics and focuses on a man and his path towards evil. Joker was director Todd Phillips’ trojan horse as he used the famous clown to create an homage to dark, 70s crime movies. Phillips, who is known for directing comedic hits like Old School and The Hangover trilogy, crafted a film that’s the lovechild of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. The grim setting and spine-tingling score become characters in their own right as it adds to the suspense and pure shock value of the film.
Ever since Joker won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, critics have been divided on whether the film is a masterpiece or a Taxi Driver ripoff. With the FBI monitoring mass shooting threats ahead of its premiere, some critics have even debated if this movie is dangerous, saying that it glorifies villains and could incite violence from the “kill the rich” scenes in the movie. That being said, Joker makes the audience aware that it’s an origin story about a villain. Villans are bad guys who do bad things and yes, sometimes those bad things are murder. It’s not a sympathy piece to glorify a murderer, but rather a look at the circumstances that fueled a chaotic man to commit brutal crimes. Plus, the references to the Wayne family and Gotham City instill that the film is based on a famous villain from a comic book, not real life.
Joker is going to stir up controversy, but that’s the Joker’s job. The Joker is not kind or good, but rather, sadistic and evil. The film reflects those dark themes of isolation and omission. Furthermore, Joker also will change the future of superhero films especially if Phoenix receives a Best Actor nomination and the film is up for Best Picture. Some will call Joker a triumph. Others will say it’s a letdown because of the insurmountable hype it created. What it really caused is chaos and for that, Joker gets the last laugh.