One of the key aspects of the clown prince of crime was that we never really knew his backstory, which is why I was very hesitant (as I am sure others also were) to here we would be getting an origin story on a character that is possibly the greatest comic book villain ever (certainly the most popular).
In a sort of preparation for Director Todd Phillips’ (known for R rated comedies like 2009’s The Hangover) new Joker film, I decided to revisit two films: one that was an inspiration to this current film and another that was one of the very first to galvanize the character in general. The former was Martin Scoresese’s 1976 classic Taxi Driver, about a man (played by Robert De Niro) who is basically shunned by the public despite wanting to “clean up” the garbage of the city. The second (and lesser known) was the 1928 silent german film The Man who Laughs, a story (from Victor Hugo) that tells about a man who has been surgically disfigured to always be smiling (I recently posted a picture of Conrad Veidt, the actor in the titular role, to social media, and I still got friends saying that it is eerie, even over nine decades later).
The film opens in Gotham, where we meet a struggling Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). He works on the side as a clown, as he keeps his dream somewhat alive of trying to be a stand up comic, like his hero, talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur is indeed a kind man, but troubled to the core. We learn right away he has a certain disease (somewhat like tourettes) where he can’t stop laughing. It is clear that this laughter is desperately trying to hide unimaginable pain. Despite some nice co-workers, the only guiding light in Arthur’s life is his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), and the potential to go talk more with his crush in the apartment down the hall, single mother Sophie (Zazie Beetz).
The plot of the film is light and easy to follow, as Penny is trying to get Arthur to help her get a hold of her former boss, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who is currently running for Gotham Mayor. Yet the film is not about plot so much as it is about witnessing an tragic life event. In this case, it is the clear descent into madness that Arthur undertakes. The film will require more than one viewing, but the first viewing will undoubtedly be (as it was in my case) focused on one thing: the performance by Joaquin Phoenix.
The role of the Joker has been played by many actors over the years: Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill (voice only, but still brilliant), Heath Ledger, and Jared Leto. Of those, Ledger is the one who has probably had the most impact (he won a posthumous Oscar for the role he had in 2008’s The Dark Knight). It is a role that demands to have an actor who is has the ability to be give a chameleon effect in their approach, and make us realize that we are not watching an actor (think of actors like Gary Oldman, Christian Bale, and my personal favorite, Daniel Day-Lewis).
Phoenix also qualifies, and is simply astounding in this film. He even is given more work to do than Ledger had. Ledger’s Joker was already past the point of redemption, and was a sociopathic madman. When we first meet Phoenix, we can’t help but sympathize with him at times, as someone who has been shunned from society and left to the wolves.
Parents, this is not a movie for kids. While there is mild nudity (the joke book that Arthur keeps is filled with some cut outs of naked models from magazines), it more than makes up for it in the swearing and violence. That is not to mention the exuberant dark tone the film even after you left the theater. High School and above.
There is no clear cut answer to what type of mental issues that Fleck/Joker has (though it is safe to say there are many). The real question is how we react to someone with these issues. I am not trying to excuse the actions he exhibits, but trying to understand why he does them in the first place. At the core of it all, Arthur just wants some guidance, a soul to connect with (Sophie is one example). When we push those who are “different” from us away, it damages them in ways we can’t imagine.
Most of the scenes do work, but some that fail (not sure we needed another rendition of the outcome of Bruce’s parents). One that caught me off guard was when Fleck goes to try and talk to Thomas Wayne, and encounters his young son Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson). The jury is still out for me on this scene, but I would be lying if I said it did not give me goosebumps. I am sure there are a lot of people who will find this movie to speak out to them in some political way, but I was not looking at that. I was simply watching what happens when we forget to love our neighbor.
That, and one of the year’s best performances.
Send in the awards.