First things first, put aside all your comic book hero expectations. DC’s Joker is one of the most famous icons, villains of all time. We’ve seen him portrayed across the decades in various incarnations and one even earned an Academy Award for it (Heath Ledger, for 2008’s The Dark Knight). But now, the spotlight shines on Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker in a way not seen before.
Gotham City 1980s. Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is sitting in front of a mirror, painting his “clown face” on. When he’s done, he pulls his lips into a frown and then a smile. Fleck works for a clown agency, standing on the busy streets of Gotham, holding an “everything must go sign.” Fleck gets attacked by a group of kids, and when he returns to work, his boss gives him a gun for safety purposes.
Fleck suffers from Pseudobulbar affect (uncontrollable bouts of hysterical laughter). He carries a laminated card that he shows to a woman on the bus, irritated by his laughter. It’s not Fleck who has the problem, it’s society and the world we live in. A society that judges and misunderstands. He has a mental health condition, and it’s a brilliant scene and shot as Phillips lets us read the card with the woman, “Forgive my laughter: I have a condition.” She doesn’t apologize for her behavior.
Fleck lives at home with his fragile mother, Penny (Frances Conroy). They spend their nights watching late night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Franklin is his hero because Fleck aspires to be a standup comedian and serves almost as a father-figure to him.
Every scene, every incident that Fleck experiences is building up to what finally makes him snap. And when he does, it’s a superbly executed scene with the sound design, the score, the editing all coming in aggressively, matching the tone of the moment. It takes place on the subway, and this is just the beginning of his transformation into Joker.
What Phillips excels at is crafting a screenplay (co-written with Scott Silver) where you already feel sorry for him by this point. And you continue to do so as he fully evolves into the Joker.
The violence in the film is shocking and at times bloody, but it’s far from gratuitous. But here is a man who has snapped. A man who has never really felt “happy for one second of his life” and one who’s been pushed to his limit.
Fleck’s world is one where his mother tells him he was put here to spread joy, but the people who he admires and aspires to be like, mock him. He wants to be a comedian, but he’s not even funny and Murray Franklin, his hero mocks him.
He’s on seven different medications and his social worker informs him that with funding being cut, he’s no longer going to be treated or cared for. Fleck comments later how much better he feels without his medication, the world has become clearer for him. It’s a commentary on society.
Joker is exceptional. Joaquin Phoenix’s physical transformation for this role is astonishing. His dive into mental illness is one that has never been seen before in any portrayal of this character. The unflinching look at mental illness and his mesmerizing and raw. Even his laugh that starts off as awkward, almost painful ends victoriously. Phoenix’s Joker is one you understand, that’s all he wants. His is one you feel for. Phoenix humanizes the character, and you simply can not take your eyes off of him and you can’t help but feel empathy for him.
Phillips’ eye for directing here is crucial. Lawrence Sher’s cinematography is beautiful. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s urgent score and Jeff Groff’s editing all make for a dark and bold film, treading far from the world of comic books. This isn’t about action chases or big visual effects explosions. It’s dark, gritty and fearless. His Gotham City is dirty, “super rats” have taken over the city. Maybe it’s metaphorical for the ultra-wealthy, they’re the rats. Thomas Wayne, a billionaire ignores him and later punches him in the face. After the subway attack, Wayne says, “Gotham’s lost its way. What kind of coward would do something that cold-blooded? Someone who hides behind a mask.” The villains here are the rich and wealthy, Murray Franklin ends up mocking Arthur Fleck and publicly humiliating him. The culprit is society and what it does, it turns a blind eye. By no means am I justifying the violence.
Watch Joker as a commentary. Understand how society ignores someone just trying to make a living but doesn’t concern themselves with someone who has a mental illness. Watch it because Joaquin Phoenix delivers a mesmerizing performance and catapults into one of the best interpretations of Batman’s most famous archenemy and an equally Oscar-worthy performance. Watch it because Joker is truly a spectacle.
Joker lands in theaters on October 4 from Warner Bros.
As a Brit, I’ll say anything.
Some things I love;
Meryl Streep, Italians and Starbucks.