“Joker is a masterpiece of cinema. It is dark and twisted as it should be. Phoenix gives us one of the best ever performances seen on-screen and that’s a fact!”
Let’s get this out of the way first thing. This is most certainly NOT a superhero movie. Don’t go into the screen expecting Batman to appear and save the day. No Superman flying down and putting the world to rights. No Wonder Woman will appear to wield her sword and vanquish all evil. This is a slow-burning, thought-provoking drama whose main protagonist just so happens to be the Clown Prince Of Crime. It also happens to be, in my opinion, the film of the year.
Joker | Warner Bros. Pictures
The film is nothing short of incredible. I went in thinking it would probably be a good film but I wouldn’t enjoy it as much as I did. We have never, ever seen The Joker like this. This version of the character, although not someone we can cheer for or ever really come to like is a tragic character. Like a lot of the famous clowns throughout the course of history, underneath the makeup, underneath the laughing and smiling lurks a tortured soul, a pale shadow of the exterior face that we all see and take for granted. We see the jollity and frivolity, never the pain and suffering under the makeup or mask. In this film, we see everything and it is never comfortable.
The film opens featuring the classic Warner Brothers logo from the 1970s and 1980s. We are immediately aware that the film is set before all the others of its ilk, a time before any of the new crop of heroes ever graced the screens. We are thrust into a dank, depressing locker room. Several men are there, putting on clown suits and makeup. We slowly focus on one sitting in front of a mirror. He paints his face as a tear rolls down his cheek. Looking at himself, he pulls at the corners of his mouth, pulling them down one moment and then forcing himself to hold them up in a forced smile. Every time he drops his mouth, he always ends up with the face of a man who’s defeated, broken. This is our main character, the person who we will follow all the way through the film. We have our first encounter with Arthur Fleck. We will follow his journey from this point in. At times, we will laugh at him, at times we will pity him, at times we will even cheer for him. By the end of the film, we will be scared and wary of him. Seeing this man as the film opens reminded me of a classic painting from years gone by of a clown lying on his bed, clutching a note, dead. The painting is called My Life and is a tragic example of what we will find during the course of the film.
Arthur is a tortured man. He is suffering from mental illness and is under the guidance of a councillor. He discusses his feelings with her and gets his needed medication from her. His ultimate aim is to become a standup comedian but he suffers from being completely unfunny. He is also prone to bouts of uncontrollable laughter at times of stress or panic, a trait that is described in the film as being a medical condition and will cause him problems later on in the film. Arthur is next seen in full clown makeup, swinging a sign on the street, doing a little dance as he advertises a closing down sale he has been hired to promote. A group of young thugs charge him and steal the sign from him, running off down the street with it. Arthur gives chase after them to get the sign back, eventually being led into an alleyway. Here, he is assaulted quite viciously by the thugs, beating him with his own sign and giving him a beating, leaving him lying on the floor in agony. This isn’t going to be the last time Arthur is set upon during the film but it WILL be the last time he takes this punishment without retaliation.
Back at work, one of his fellow employees hands Arthur a gun for his protection, something that will come back to haunt him and others as the film progresses. Arthur lives with his sick, elderly mother, helping her with meals and bathing and such. They spend their nights watching a late-night TV show featuring the hottest talk show host of the moment, Murray Franklin. Arthur has delusions in his mind of appearing on the show and being treated like a long lost son of Franklin. Later on in the film, he will get his wish but not in the way he intended or dreamed he would. Once his mother is asleep, Arthur plays around with the gun, thinking it isn’t loaded. Of course, it is and he manages to shoot a hole in the apartment wall. Meanwhile, he is attracted to his neighbour, a young woman with a child by the name of Sophie Dumond. He first encounters her in the building’s elevator where they strike up an unlikely friendship, all based on smiles. He and Sophie strike up a budding romantic relationship, one that Arthur needs to keep him grounded in reality. They go out to several places, laughing and enjoying each others company. Sophie even accompanies Arthur to his stand up tryout, laughing her way through his set.
Arthur’s mother is a former employee of Thomas Wayne and is writing to the Billionaire in the hopes of gaining some much needed financial support for her and her son. As a former employee, she hopes he will help her out any way he can, he being a mayoral candidate and all and Gotham’s saviour. Every day, Arthur checks the mailbox to see if Wayne has replied and every day, there is nothing from him. Arthur gets a job entertaining sick children at the local hospital dressed as a clown, singing, dancing and leading the children in a singalong. During his act, the gun falls out from his costume, stopping the fun in its tracks. He still tries to entertain the children and nurses even as they look at him in pure shock and horror. He gets fired. On the way home on the subway, he witnesses three young men harassing a young woman in the same carriage as his. This event sparks off his uncontrollable laughter which the three men don’t like. Arthur again is assaulted by the three but this time, he retaliates, an event which will hang over the film from this point on. His sheer act of rage and violence will send shock waves throughout Gotham and spark an uprising by the lower class citizens who Thomas Wayne refers to as ‘Clowns’.
I will leave my synopsis here as to go any further will be going into spoiler territory. The film is dark from beginning to end but from this point on in the film, it gets darker still. We are witnessing the birth of a comic book legend but it’s not an easy ride. Nor should it be. In all honesty, the film isn’t about the Joker until the third reel. The film is a study of a man slowly slipping into insanity. It makes no difference that the main character is already suffering from mental illness when we meet him, his decline is at times sad and depressing for us to watch. When the highs come, we are elated for him. When the lows return, we want to be there for him, to throw an arm around his shoulders and share his burden. By the end of the proceedings, we want to be as far away from him as we can for our own safety. The further down the rabbit hole of Arthur’s sanity we go, the more we want to pull back, to climb back out again. But we can’t. We are trapped on this journey with him until the bitter end. And believe me, the end WILL be bitter.
The direction by Todd Phillips is inspired. He drags us along on this journey with such a keen eye, we can’t help but marvel at what he has delivered for us to watch. He presents to us a Gotham City of 1981, a city far removed from all previous versions we have seen. This isn’t the dark noir looking Gotham of Tim Burton. This isn’t the neon from Joel Schumacher. This isn’t the modern, grand-looking Gotham of Christopher Nolan or the good looking, smart version of Zack Snyder. This is a down and dirty Gotham, a repressed and run-down city. A 1980s throwback. It has more of a depression-era, skid row look to it which is perfect for the films material and themes. And it makes the film all that more realistic. The Gotham in this film is almost a character on its own. Phillips doesn’t shy away from that fact, much to his credit and directs proceedings with the eye of someone who lived in the city, who experienced the events first hand. And his use of classic and old fashioned credits and logos is inspired. From the opening credits to the final roll, this is reminiscent of classic musicals like The Sound Of Music or the Doris Day films of the 1960s. The cast list at the end of the film is presented to us in the classic style of those kinds of movies. And it is completely perfect in a film such as this. Almost like showing something that the film certainly isn’t, that proceedings will be all sweetness and light. Not a chance.
The screenplay by Phillips and Scott Silver is wonderful. Both have looked at the history of the character, the twisted and disturbed mind that lies within. The classic stories that have been published over the years. And have delivered a screenplay that fits the film like a glove. The writing does the character justice while also taking a serious and sad look at the deteriorating mind of a tragic human being and bringing home the despair contained within him.
As for the cast, all perform well and fit their characters into the story like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Robert De Niro has what in reality amounts to a cameo role but takes second billing. His performance as Murray Franklin is so similar to his turn in the 1983 Martin Scorsese film ‘The King Of Comedy‘ that it can’t help but bring back great memories of that film. De Niro played the obsessed fan in that film, here he plays the host Arthur is obsessed with. A great role reversal. De Niro is at turns nasty and we despise him before we see behind the mask and see he is playing a character onscreen, not unlike Arthur. De Niro is wonderful in such a limited role. Zazie Beetz as Sophie gives great support of a single mother struggling in such a depressing, heartless city. We feel empathy for her and we end up hoping she can save Arthur from himself, to show him another way to live his life and to deal with his pain. Brett Cullen as Thomas Wayne isn’t what we expect at all. We are so used to seeing Thomas Wayne as a charming benefactor, a man whose passion in trying to improve the lives of Gotham’s citizens makes him such a great character that we hate to see his eventual fate, one that we know will lead his son to become Batman. Here though, Thomas Wayne is an arrogant, self-centred, despicable piece of trash. Believing his wealth and power makes him better than everyone else and hardly caring about his fellow human beings. Cullen pulls off a great performance. We know where and how his story will end and we sit watching with a grim smile of satisfaction knowing what he has sown will eventually bring about his own death.
But now we come to Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck. Is his Joker the best of them all? Does he have the power to become the definitive Joker? Is his incarnation of the Clown Prince Of Crime the greatest of all time. The answer is up to your own interpretation. But his Joker is in a different league to the others. Whereas before we have seen the character played colourfully by Caesar Romero, Crazily by Jack Nicholson, completely excellently and probably perfectly by Mark Hamill in Batman: The Animated Series and Heath Ledger in ‘The Dark Knight‘, this is a version of the character that is so far removed from the comic book world, it can’t be held up against the others. Phoenix gives us one of the best ever performances seen on screen. And that’s a fact. Phoenix portrays Arthur so well that we find ourselves hoping against all hope that he will be okay by the end credits, that he will receive the help he needs, to have a happy ending to his suffering and mental torture. Spoiler Alert-it ain’t going to happen. Phoenix plays the tragic Arthur in what HAS to be an Oscar-Winning performance of tragedy and the effects of mental illness have on the human mind. Even by the end of the film, after all he has done and committed, we still cling onto that faint thread of hope for him. But here lies the biggest joke of them all. We come to realise that what we have seen on screen may not be the truth. That it could all be in his disturbed mind. That we have been played for fools. Make no bones about it, by the film’s climax, it’s up to us to decide if what we have seen is true or not. And then we realise the truth even more. We all thought that the Joker was the alter-ego. He’s not. The Joker was always there from the start. The Joker is the man in front of us, using the face of Arthur Fleck to fool us. Arthur is the falsehood, not the reality. Phoenix displays this for us all to see and proves to be a masterful actor.
The film does contain some really nasty bursts of violence, the likes we have never seen or expected in this kind of genre movie. And it contains some of the goriest moments ever seen in a DC film. One sequence is most certainly not for the squeamish. We know it could happen but don’t ever think it will until it is presented to us. Without giving anything away, Phoenix here again is in a class of his own. One minute terrifying us, the next making us laugh nervously. Phoenix delivers a masterclass to us over the course of the two hours running time. However, again at the climax of the film, we are uncertain as to whether what we are seeing is reality or a delusion. But it is thrilling to see how the birth of the Joker is tied to the birth of Batman. Even though Arthur isn’t the man pulling the trigger against Bruce Wayne’s parents, his actions will be mirrored further down the line. By his inadvertent decisions, Arthur has sown the seeds and set in motion all the events that will lead to the birth and creation of his greatest enemy. We become aware more than ever that these two are the different sides of the same coin, that their fates lie in the hands of the other. We may not see Batman during the course of this film but we are aware that somewhere down the road, he will make his debut in the streets of Gotham.
Joker is a masterpiece of cinema. It is dark and twisted as it should be. It deals with its main character in such a sympathetic light for the most part that we cannot help but be swept along. It makes us think about what we are seeing, about taking a sneak peek inside the mind of what is essentially a twisted, tortured and psychopathic genius. We see how life and events moulded him into the character that we know and have come to love and cherish. When Joker finally makes his long-awaited true appearance in the film’s third act, it is almost like seeing a butterfly emerge from its cocoon finally. And his entrance is fitting for our beloved villain. Phoenix brings the character to life in glorious detail, his maniacal laughter entertains but also scares us. The way the actor presents us with the pathological laughter Arthur suffers from is nothing short of brilliance. We believe him when he tells various people during the film that is a medical condition. We buy into the actors total immersion in the character and leave with a feeling that we want to spend more time with him, even though the director and the actor himself have said we won’t. Joker is one of the best films I have seen in quite a long time. It deserves all the praise and accolades that are coming its way. It deserves huge recognition at next years Academy Awards. And that is no joke.
My rating: 10/10
Joker is distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures and arrives in cinemas from October 4th.
Until next time.
‘Put on a happy face’
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Carl Roberts is a Senior Staff Writer and Books and Literature Correspondent for Future of the Force. He is passionate about Star Wars, Marvel, DC, Indiana Jones and Horror movies. Follow him on Twitter @CarlRoberts2 where he uses the force frequently!