Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is an aspiring comedian who moonlights as a clown for hire. He suffers from a condition where, in uncomfortable or stressful situations, he begins to laugh and cackle uncontrollably. He lives in a one-bedroom apartment with his ailing mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy) whom he cares for, and idolizes late night show host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) who he fantasizes about meeting. As Gotham is ravaged by super rats, immorality, apathy, and a city wide garbage strike, Arthur tries his best to navigate through the cesspool with a smile, but when a series of events culminates with him killing three men in self-defense, who he has been all along is awakened and his decent into nihilistic madness and mayhem commences.
I was surprised by this film. In the 70’s and the 80’s, R ratings meant you had to prepare yourself for some heavy subject matter. As the decades have passed, however, the R rating system shifted to mean there may be a sex scene where you see a breast or two (or a penis in some cases), or over the top violence as seen in films like “Deadpool” and “The Expendables.” Joker is not such case. It’s an odd mix of films like “Taxi Driver,” “Falling Down,” and even “The Fan,” but at the same time, it stands alone. Seeing it in the moving theater was refreshing because I got to witness the audience reactions. Prior to the movie, there was excitement and electricity in the air. During the movie there was uncomfortableness and ill-advised laughs: people unsure whether it was okay to laugh at certain scenes, and after the movie, there was dead silence. Director Todd Phillips’ notoriety comes from his comedies like “Old School” and “The Hangover.” No one expected this pivot. I applaud Warner Brothers for supporting his vision and not crumbling and succumbing to the negativity that shrouded this film before it even premiered. They trusted the audience to be intelligent enough, and not many major studios take that risk anymore.
Joaquin Phoenix did an incredible job. This isn’t an argument of “who is the better Joker?” that doesn’t matter to me; each iteration of the character works for its director’s material (except Jared Leto’s version unfortunately). Joaquin made the pain of mental illness and isolation real. There is a sweetness to him that slowly evolves (or devolves?) into something – not sinister- but real. Through the film, you root for him to grow and change and find success, but we don’t realize what he’s changing into until it is too late, then we want him to change back. In “The Silence of the Lambs,” director Jonathan Demme made the audience more uncomfortable by having Hannibal Lecter’s face fill the screen, leaving his eyes piercing your soul. This is echoed by Todd Phillips in many ways. He isn’t as patient as Demme in this regard, but the affect hauntingly remains. The production is amazing (which btw Martin Scorsese was very much apart of until his schedule for “The Irishman” conflicted with his duties so for all this hoopla about what he said about Marvel films… stop and move on). The environment itself plays a major role in Arthur’s decent into The Inferno. Gotham is basically New York in the 80’s: it’s dirty, it’s gritty, and so much garbage liters the street; you almost feel Travis Bickle is out there somewhere suffering through the filth. It is the antithesis of what we have grown accustomed to with Marvel films.
Yet, the film is far from flawless. The ending showing Thomas and Martha Wayne getting murdered was unnecessary. It’s almost as if Todd Phillips was forced by the studio to insert this irony/origin to set up something else rather than let the film stand on the strength of the story. I think that’s where the film falls short of perfect. If it were called something else, produced by some nobody independent production company, Todd Phillips would’ve been touted as the next Michael Heneke. Also, the setup of Arthur’s lucid imagination was muddy. Arthur daydreams about being in the audience at Murray Franklin’s show, and his idol calls him a son, blah blah blah, then Arthur has an interaction with a neighbor and her daughter in an elevator, and it continues as if her and him are in some type of relationship but it turns out, they aren’t. The payoff isn’t a resounding gasp so much as an “oh….kay.” This sort of revelation has been done better by David Fincher’s “Fight Club.” Instead, it is an unnecessary loose end that didn’t really push the story forward or reveal anything we didn’t already know.
There is a double standard when it comes to violence in film. I conscientiously try not to read any news about a film leading up to its release because, if I plan to watch it, I don’t want to go in with any pre-formed opinions or expectations. Yet, in this information age, it is unavoidable to hear something, and the scuttlebutt circling the air was the violence everyone is/was so afraid this film would illicit. Joaquin Phoenix walked out of an interview because he was asked if the film would inspire mass shooters. Did anyone ask Keanu Reeves if the violence in John Wick would? Why is it that a film like Joker is mired in controversy and John Wick is not? Nothing against John Wick, I’m just pointing to an issue much deeper than the Hollywood double standard. There are many violent films in cinema, much worse than the violence shown in Joker and many of which are celebrated. The conservative view still argues that violent video games and violent movies are the reason for domestic terrorism and school shootings. Our history shows differently. Sure there weren’t mass shootings back then, but as early as 1930, people were chaining people to the back of vehicles and dragging them for miles through concrete and gravel, lynching them for public amusement, and burning their business to the ground (google Black Wallstreet), and at that time you had Three Stooges and Buster Keaton. Did they illicit that violence? Did Stephen Paddock come off of watching “The Matrix” when he decided to open fire on an innocent concert going crowd in Las Vegas? What if James Holmes entered a showing of “The Campaign” with Will Ferrell and Zack Galifianakis instead of “The Dark Knight Rises?” Would we worry about the dangers of ridiculous political comedies?
When the mass shootings of the Sutherland Springs Church in Texas and the Charleston Church in South Carolina occurred, it was said that this was perpetrated by “sick individuals.” Joker is a representation of that sickness, or rather, the complete spiraling decent into it. Isolated and lonely, trapped in your own skin with your own thoughts, trying to make sense of a world that doesn’t, and desperate to fit into it none the less. There are those fortunate enough not to have felt that helpless purposelessness; the unworthiness of life. However, there are those in this world that do, unfortunately, that’s what makes the violence in the film so hard to watch. It comes from a real pain. Each gun shot, each blow to the cranium feels heavy and sickening. You’re not supposed to cheer for this. You can’t justify it or make sense of it. It doesn’t. It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable, otherwise it fails. You’re not supposed to laugh when the Arthur locks himself in a bathroom and does a Tai Chi-ish dance to calm himself after he’s killed three men. You should be terrified. That’s the punchline.
Joker is not a date night movie, nor is it for young children. It is disturbing, raw, frightening, and human. It is a character study that would be heralded as such if it were called anything else. I do believe it is a must see… if you can stomach it. If you can’t – and I say this with no malice, disrespect, or ill intent – don’t. You can walk out of the movie theater and demand your money back, return the DVD to Redbox, or accept it for what it is. What that is exactly, is completely up to you.