JOKER - the hero Gotham needs right now
When I heard that Todd Phillips was directing and co-writing the new JOKER origin story, my heart sank. Phillips is probably better known for the Hangover series of films which were not subtle forms of story-telling. JOKER’s story is not subtle. It is gross, it is disturbing and it is visceral in its portrayal of mental illness. To be honest, as someone who had to mind their mental fitness, I do find films that deal with the topic disturbing. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is one I avoid. For this reason, it’s taken me a day to gather my thoughts on JOKER.
In some ways it’s a simple story. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a comedian who has a mental illness, takes medication for it and sees a counselor. He has a job as a sign-twirling clown from which he gets fired due to no fault of his own. A series of mis-steps leads to him losing his job including being found carrying a gun for his own protection while entertaining children. An incident on a Gotham subway sees him setting off on a path of crime and murder which he realises brings him fame and recognition. His dream is to be a stand-up comedian and his hero is Murray Franklin (Robert deNiro), a late-night talk-show host. After a foray into stand-up, his efforts end up being televised by Franklin and setting up a duel between the pair which is resolved in the final act.
Along the way, the film let’s us know we are in Gotham. There is Thomas Wayne running for Mayor. We get a brief encounter with a young Bruce Wayne and we see the seedy, crime-ridden streets of Gotham with rioting locals fed up with a mounting garbage, due to a strike and the expanding divide between rich and poor. JOKER’s actions feed into this and he is hailed as a hero, not the hero Gotham wants but the hero it needs. JOKER is a lens focusing the frustrations of the people and an almost Messianic in his appearance.
No visit to Gotham would be complete without the obligatory scene where Thomas and Martha Wayne are shot in an alleyway in front of a young Bruce and JOKER has its own version.
Arthur Fleck/JOKER is introduced as a figure we can identify with. He is an underdog, beaten by the system. He has a good heart. He lives with his mother and takes care of her every need with some really tender scenes. But we know the arc this story takes and the result is the most infamous villain that The Batman has ever faced. In a sometimes predictable fashion the story causes mishap after mishap to befall Fleck. We feel sorry for him, up to a point.
The violence in the film is strong. There is a particular scene in Fleck’s apartment, towards the end of Act II that is as surprising as it is violent and locks-in his downward trajectory from sad, ill clown to sociopath.
There is already a lot of OSCAR talk about Phoenix’s performance and there is no doubt his performance is outstanding. His skeletal embodiment of anguish and decline is breath-taking. When Heath Ledger took on the role in The Dark Knight, I thought - that’s it, no one can bring any more to that role. Phoenix does. He finds a new angle and a new, almost vulnerability to JOKER.
Let’s also talk about the laugh, the famous JOKER laugh. In this film we are told he suffers from a disorder that causes him to laugh out loud at inappropriate or stressful moments. This is used to good effect early on in the film to generate sympathy for the character and to chilling effect later on.
Overall, I found it a deeply disturbing film that I watched, at times, through my fingers. I found it uncomfortable viewing as we watch a human being, who clearly needs help, not get that help and worse, be mistreated by society and the system that is there to help.
They say DC superhero films are dark - and they are. With JOKER, it’s positively Stygian.