Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix bring us a new and unusual version of the classic Batman villain.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a clown-for-hire and aspiring stand-up comic with Pseudobulbar Affect, which causes him to laugh at inappropriate times. He takes care of his invalid mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), has a crush on his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) and fantasizes about appearing on the late night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). However, a series of events, starting with him being brutally assaulted by a group of kids for no reason, lead to Arthur becoming the symbol of anarchy: The Joker.
Okay, here’s the spoiler-free analysis of the movie:
This movie’s going to be divisive as hell. I’m not even talking about the issue of whether or not The Joker, a character famous for not really having a definitive backstory despite being around for 75 years, needed an origin movie. This is like any other figure with this many alternate characterizations: If you don’t like it, no big deal, it’s not canon. Heath Ledger caught crap because his Joker only wore makeup, and he was still amazing. What I mean by divisive is that I walked out of this movie being unable to say definitively if what I just watched was brilliant or not. I’ve come to the conclusion that it was probably a bunch of brilliant parts that were not quite assembled in a brilliant way. If I thought that was a commentary on comic book histories being composed of equal parts of brilliant storytelling (like The Killing Joke or Spider-Man’s “Kraven’s Last Hunt”) and not-so-brilliant storytelling (like All-Star Batman and Robin or Spider-Man’s “One More Day”), then that would itself be brilliant, but… nope, that’s not what they were going for.
One thing is that Joaquin Phoenix really went above and beyond in his performance. He may not be playing the “Joker” as we know the character, or even a character that really rings true to being the Joker, but the role that he is playing is absolutely perfectly realized in his portrayal. A big thing was his commitment to getting a kind of impossibly lanky figure which more resembles the traditional joker physique. He lost over 50 pounds for the role, but he also manages to move and shift in ways that emphasize the unnaturalness of it. However, when he wants to, he can look almost normal, because how he holds himself is so key to the audience’s perception. He also manages to do a perfectly horrifying version of Pseudobulbar Affect (which is a real thing), showing how sad and embarrassed he feels while still laughing externally. He shows us the grand gestures and performances that the character wishes to pull off, but also the awkward reality of him trying to do them and not being able to. I don’t know that the movie used him well, but I know that his performance really carries the weaker portions.
However, the movie’s themes are, at best, a little disconcerting and vaguely defended and undercut. The film wants you to empathize with Arthur and, to ensure that you have a shot at it, gives him an incredibly terrible life that only gets worse throughout the film. Moreover, it makes sure to convey that almost everything that happens to him isn’t really his fault. Most of the film is just randomness, something that actually DOES align with The Killing Joke’s origin for the Joker of just having one really bad day. But, when we finally do see him actually make a decision, it’s one that he actually tries to excuse, while he’s doing it, by saying that it’s not his fault. The problem is that this is the Joker. He’s not a character we should empathize with. He’s a psychopath. Even when people have portrayed his backstory as tragic, it’s always shown that he chose to use his backstory to become evil as opposed to Batman using tragedy to become a force for good. This movie doesn’t have Batman, so we don’t really have a solid figure to remind us that we are NOT supposed to like what Arthur does. So, basically, we’re cheering for a figure who is famous for being a psychotic killer. That’s bad.
From a technical standpoint, the music and camera work in the film are great. They really feed into the madness of the character. The supporting characters are also well-done, particularly Frances Conroy as his mother who is arguably crazier than he is. The settings are perfect for the environment. Gotham is dirty, it’s dying, it’s filled with homeless people, and it’s increasingly segregated by class. It’s basically New York in the 1980s, which… is what Gotham was a stand-in for anyway.
Overall, I keep going back and forth over whether I think this is a good movie. The truth is, it’s a well-done film, but the way it handles its message is haphazard and, given the kind of message it’s sending out, that’s dangerous. This movie could, with just a few tweaks, have been a solid statement about the fact that society suffers at the mercy of the few or that everyone benefits from taking care of the mentally ill. Instead, it basically says that if you kill random people, there’s a large group of people that will worship you. I feel like that’s a really bad message. Well, maybe see it yourself to decide.
ENDING EXPLAINED *SPOILERS*
So, a big part of the film is that Arthur has fantasies about what’s happening around him. This is a throwback to the film The King of Comedy, a movie starring Robert De Niro that revolves around a mentally-ill comedian holding a talk-show hostage. If you’ve seen the movie, you probably know how this fits in with Joker, since that’s kind of what happens briefly at the end. Joker shows us very early on in the film that Arthur fantasizes about being famous, telling off his therapist, killing his boss, or getting the father figure he always wanted, but he clearly knows they’re fantasies. Later, after Arthur’s social services are cut and he can’t get his meds, he ends up confusing the fantasies for reality, including hallucinating being a charming boyfriend to his neighbor Sophie. We’re later shown that, in fact, she doesn’t really know who he is.
Because of this, many parts of the movie could be, and in fact probably are, only in Arthur’s mind. However, unlike The King of Comedy, where the ending is actually in De Niro’s character’s mind, this movie actually shows us that Arthur’s shooting of Murray Franklin and the ensuing riot are definitely real, because we’re given an objective third-person viewpoint showing it. In other words, the part where he is the Joker is him acting in real life the way that he always wanted to act in his fantasies.
He’s able to do this because, as the Joker, he is not Arthur Fleck. In fact, he’s never been Arthur Fleck. He was just an abandoned child that his mother adopted (though she claims that this was a lie put forth by Thomas Wayne) and allowed to be abused by her boyfriends repeatedly throughout his childhood. It’s even possible that his laughter is the result of a Traumatic Brain Injury from this abuse, meaning that the most embarrassing and constantly tormenting thing about his life was her fault. He then kills her and applies a pure-white level of greasepaint to his face, erasing his own identity even further. He says then that his life is not a tragedy, it’s a comedy. That’s because a tragedy, from a traditional Aristotelian standpoint, requires the downfall of a good but flawed person, while a comedy is the rise of a sympathetic, but not necessarily good, person. In other words, while Arthur fell, that lets the Joker rise. So, the Joker doesn’t actually have a backstory, in Arthur’s mind. He’s a blank slate that has been shaped by the society he lives in, which happens to be a mass murderer. That’s why he just keeps killing at the end.
This movie could, and probably should, have been a solid commentary about what kind of society treats its most vulnerable people the way Arthur has been treated. He was abandoned. His mother was allowed to adopt him, despite her being mentally unwell. He was given back to her even though she literally chained him to a radiator and beat him. Then, at last, they cut the funding for his mental healthcare, resulting in him having a complete psychotic break. That’s Arthur’s backstory and it’s a solid way to do a tragedy. The problem is: HE’S THE F*CKING JOKER. You cannot empathize with the clown prince of chaos. He’s a literal force of anarchy and he knows it. When asked why he killed three people, he doesn’t point out it was in self defense, he just says it was funny. It wasn’t because they were rich, or because they were assholes, it’s just because it was funny, because that’s what the Joker would say and that’s who he is now. That’s not something we should empathize with, but it is something that can be emulated, and no one should want that.
This movie should have been a solid cautionary tale about what happens in a society that has a giant class imbalance and treats the poor like crap, but instead it’s a movie about how shooting people will make you famous and happy. After all, everyone knows who the Joker is.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.