There is an iconic panel from “The Killing Joke” (the graphic novel many fans often claim is the best origin for the character ever written) that gives a glimpse into what drives the most well known villain in all of comic lore. Specifically, this one:
“Joker” is not based on “The Killing Joke” though it does show its heavy influence on writer Scott Silver’s script. I share that panel to highlight what is one of the hardest tricks director Todd Phillips manages to pull off. The intent isn’t so much to make you feel bad for Arthur Fleck aka Joker. That is easily accomplished. It is not to condone the violence he revels in, something the movie never does (regardless of all the SJW nonsense surrounding the film). It isn’t even to convince the viewer that Arthur fleck is a man driven insane. No. The real triumph lies in convincing the audience that to expect anything else from a man this broken and tortured, THAT would be insane. “Joker” is a character study. It is one of cinema’s finest moments. And it is a performance that cements Joaquin Phoenix’s place as one of the best actors of his generation.
The script is air tight. So much so that, the suffering inflicted on the protagonist is near suffocating to witness. I mean that in the best way possible. This is a journey that takes you to some dark places and there are scenes that are just plain difficult to watch. That said, nothing happening on screen is without reason. Everything you see has some purpose. Even the Joker’s iconic laugh, a thing that has sent chills down the spines of fans for decades, has been given a clear reason for being the way it is. And that reason breaks your heart. Over and over again.
The cinematography is excellent as well, with some very Scorsese-like vibes. No surprise considering Phillip’s cites “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” as major inspirations. The camera work and lighting are complemented perfectly by the color palette. As for the music, it too, is perfect. The score in particular, deserves special mention with is mournful and morose cello work, something that drives home the overbearing sense of despair surrounding Arthur’s world.
Even though Robert De Niro, Zazzie Beetz and the rest of the cast do very well with their roles, this is pretty much The Joaquin Phoenix Show through and through. Most of the shots involve Arthur Fleck. This is his life, his story, his journey. And what a journey it is too. The opening sequence sets the tone of Phoenix’s portrayal of a man that is struggling very, very hard to keep it together. He looks frail (he lost a LOT of weight for this role), walks with an unsteady gait, speaks softly and has bad posture. Even the way he rounds his shoulders is a testament to how life weighs him down. The scars are plain to see on his deformed body and his cracking mind. All of which is very unnerving to see. But as the story progresses, he slowly changes. Its a very subtle thing too. By the time the final act begins, Arthur Fleck is all but gone and the Joker is all that remains.
There is one scene in particular that drove the truth of the transformation home for me. (I’ll keep this vague to avoid spoilers). It involves Joker making a public appearance. There is no dialog, nothing really “happens”, he is just standing there, leaning against a wall, smoking. Yet everything about him is different. The way he holds the cigarette, the set of his shoulders, the sheer focus in his eyes. It is the look of a man that has stared long and hard into the abyss and BECOMES it. It is Nietzsche going native. There were many moments when the theater I was in erupted in spontaneous applause. This wasn’t one of them. It was a static shot that lasts mere seconds but one so tense that no one dared so much as breathe. If it wasn’t clear by now, let me spell it out: This is a performance that people will likely be talking about in reverent tones for generations to come.
Joker paints a very compelling picture of a monster one can sympathize with and in doing so, goes beyond what is expected of a movie based on a comic book character. It is also the kind of tale that makes one look at Batman differently, even though he has no part in this movie. Let me explain.
Whether it be fate or random misfortune that puts Arthur on his path is of little consequence. The fact is that life and society kept piling on the pain right up to the moment he snaps. What little support structure he had collapses within a span of days by a combination of a bad economy, bad people and plain bad luck. Even without the aid of that terrible week, Arthur’s course was always headed in one doomed direction. And the world did nothing but laugh and shove him along. It inverts all of polite society’s norms and exposes it for the bad joke Heath Ledger’s Joker saw it as in the “Dark Knight”. Only, this film does it through Phoenix’s eyes. Arthur Fleck never had a chance. The whole “pull yourself up by your boot straps” argument doesn’t work for someone born with no feet. “Joker” basically takes the idea of free will and spits in its face. But, and this bit is important, it took a LOT of suffering and lifetime of pain to turn him into this walking course on nihilism.
Bruce Wayne on the other hand, comes in from the opposite side of the spectrum. Born a billionaire, a prince in all but name. His bootstraps are lined with diamonds. He would have to try real hard, go waaay out of his way, to fail in life. And yet, one awful moment, the murder of his parents, a crime that Gotham likely sees on a weekly basis, turns him into the poster child for PTSD. For all his badass-ery, Batman is in essence, a nine year old child constantly reliving a nightmare he refuses to wake up from. (And I say this as one of biggest Batman fans EVER as Episode 11 of LVS will show).
Which of those two is the “stronger” character here? Who had more agency? The hero or the villain? And more importantly, how the hell did this vision come from the guy that directed “The Hangover”?!? It is both a powerful character study and a scathing indictment of society and its institutions. I cant wait to see the kind of conversations “Joker” is going to foster.
Tempted as I am to score this as a 10, I’m not going to. For one thing, a perfect movie, is in my mind at least, an impossibility. For another, there must be flaws here that I cannot see. I’m too blinded by the movie’s brilliance to notice. “Joker” is a masterpiece. Time to put on a happy face.
FINAL SCORE 9.9/10