Joker (dir. Todd Phillips, 2019) – Aspiring comic Arthur Fleck descends into a life of violent crime as he comes to terms with his inner darkness.
Conceptually, a new take on the Joker screams bad idea. Once driven mad by chemicals in the vat, the villain has since evolved into a more complex character and a powerful emblem of the chaos that he creates. His very mystery and absence of reasoning had made him all the more unpredictable and terrifying.
Rewriting him as a troubled social misfit seems too obvious an origin story, which might just undo the good work that Jonah and Christopher Nolan had done. Besides, another Batman reboot? Even the most avid fan has to be tired of watching Thomas and Martha Wayne get shot in the alleyway.
But the man who laughed this time, is not the same Clown Prince we have seen before. The layered character study justifies his on-screen existence, ironically with the help of Martin Scorsese, who had so recently confessed his disdain for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
For one, the new Joker shares closer DNA with Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) than the Mr. J we know from the on-page Rogues Gallery. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is God’s lonely man, belonging more to the Scorsese playbook than a comic book panel, though with considerably less subtlety.
Robert De Niro’s involvement also mirrors the King of Comedy, playing the reversed role of a talk show host whom a comedian obsesses over. On these mean streets of Gotham, it is easy to see how Scorsese was at one point, keen in producing Joker.
Ultimately backing out due to his commitment to The Irishman, his influence remains in the weighty narrative, one that necessitated a strong central performance. Joaquin Phoenix goes above and beyond, carrying the film effortlessly on his own.
A massive part of Phoenix’s peerless act belongs to his laugh, a performance in itself. He shrouds his pathological condition in ambiguity, drawing sympathy at times and terror at others.
Sadness and helplessness loom in his eyes when he cannot help laughing during the wrong situations. He lets out a different kind of laughter to fit in, gaining control of it soon as he looks away. His worst laugh follows blood, depraved joy dripping from his smile as he dances to the music only he can hear.
What is real, and what isn’t? An unreliable narrator makes it hard to tell. The murders however unmistakably, do happen. Unlike its explosive genre counterparts, the violence comes measured, and resultantly hits hard. A story like this would no doubt cause controversy. Bringing to light his reasons can easily constitute as empathy for Arthur’s wrongdoings. What helps little are the echoes of real world killers John Wayne Gacy and Bernhard Goetz.
Yet these protests would be negating the cautionary tale that Joker really is, on the downward glances we cast towards the misfits and the cuts to fundings meant to help the underclass. It warns of a growing societal apathy that never offered the help that people like Arthur needed.
Some will certainly enjoy Joker for the wrong reasons. There is no stopping of fans idealising Tyler Durden, for instance, ignoring how he inadvertently lost control of the anarchy he was responsible for. But it is never the responsibility of the art itself for the actions of its audience. To fear how art can be interpreted, only builds the tendency for self-censorship and a dangerous culture of landmines.
At the same time, Joker makes no excuses for Arthur’s crimes. Society may have pushed him to the edge, but he is the one who chooses violence. Arthur Fleck is not a hero. His actions have visible, irreparable consequences. He is ultimately portrayed as an extremist and a criminal, responsible for guiding Gotham into losing their way.
Joker warns against societal apathy in its layered cautionary tale, made gripping by Joaquin Phoenix’s deeply affecting performance.