A breath of fresh air after Marvel’s onslaught of movies that all looked, felt and sounded the same, and also DC’s rather lacklustre efforts all-round, Joker is a dark, twisted and unsettling character study of a neglected, abused and very sick man who, obviously, slowly turns into the Joker as the dark background of Gotham slaps him around.
There is an obvious parallel between the Gotham of Joker and our world today, as Arthur Fleck’s gradual decline into violence mirrors the horrid reality of many young men in the US who are also sliding downhill into violence, and like the Gotham we see in Joker, this society is far from innocent in these matters. The social commentary is plentiful and hard to argue with, while rarely being hidden; subtlety isn’t necessarily required if the messages don’t cause the film to seem ‘preachy’, which isn’t the case here as The Cold Truth behind them reveals the film’s relevance to current society, the US in particular. Is is near-impossible to argue against.
The narrative of the film is quite bare, but it doesn’t need a huge amount of meat on its bones in that sense, as the entire movie is closely watching the downfall of the initially fragile character of Arthur Fleck, often literally as facial close-ups are commonplace. Joaquin Phoenix’s incredible performance, one that would easily be award-worthy if in a different film, uses these close shots to full effect, where each time Phoenix seems a step lower in depicting Fleck and is eerie in how real each looks. The way he changes as a person isn’t entirely obvious, sometimes it is a simple facial expression, often it is the very creepy way in which his laughter is consistently out of place.
Comparisons to other portrayals of the Joker are inevitable, though somewhat meaningless as Phoenix didn’t play the Clown Prince of Crime, at least not in the way his predecessors did. He isn’t the full-fledged delusional psychotic that dominates Joker’s character until the final act, which is not a long time to outshine someone like Ledger or Nicholson. Yet, he somehow does. His inappropriate, ill-timed laughter that often suddenly disappears to reveal a pained but sensitive look as soon as the smile disappears, reminiscent of Tom Hardy at the beginning of Bronson which renders many a scene before the final act as a definitive take on a possible Joker origin story (this one loosely based on the animated Batman episode ‘The Killing Joke ’, no agreed on origins exists), as well as feeling like a fresh start, given that those he has been compared all began their respective films as the Joker as we know him, a far cry from the character here, even by film’s end.
The power of the final act and the flawless, legitimately distressing acting Phoenix seems to effortlessly manage from start to finish delivers a thoroughly believable transformation from a mama’s boy who dreamed of stand up comedy, to a different person entirely. So while comparisons may be akin to apples and oranges, the final fifteen or so minutes is easily enough time to establish Phoenix as perhaps the best Joker yet. Strong words perhaps, but Leto was given seven minutes in Suicide Squad to flex his muscles, and while his take certainly looked original, we never really saw much, if anything.
Heath Ledger is the pick for most fans, and there can be no doubt that his Joker was unforgettable, however he was much, much more sadistic and his story takes place well after the credits roll here. However, Phoenix’s impact in a short amount of time as the Joker is compelling, memorable, and funny in a very dark way, and this is without mentioning the consistently disturbing character traits exhibited as Arthur Fleck well before he succumbs to the violent, narcissistic psychotic that he had essentially been bred to be.
While at times he looks like Ledger, mainly due to the long hair, Joaquin’s Joker is closer to the video-game portrayal featured in recent Batman games than any other. His tendencies to laugh constantly and maniacally, to break into sudden spontaneous dance as if celebrating an occasion no one else is aware of, he is most reminiscent of the inimitable Mark Hamill voiced creation. His transformation begins on a dark note, yet somehow he consistently hits darker shades of black. While the film does retain this tone despite relentlessly, there a few unnecessary scenes following the climax that hopefully aren’t an indication of a sequel.
Once Phoenix dons the iconic white makeup, there is more of a juxtaposition as he emerges as a man who is having fun under that absurd suit despite having clearly entered the realm of true madness and violence. Given the range that is required of him, his overall performance as the man who becomes the Joker perhaps does rank him at the top of the acclaimed list.
Regardless, he will certainly be remembered well thanks to this oddball energy he brings to the Clown Prince of Crime once he finally tips over the edge of no return. The unique looking make-up paired with the unforgettable suit is chocolate icing on the proverbial cake.
However, what about the concerns regarding current society? More than once, humanity is essentially referred to as sheep, as so many of us near-mindlessly soak up news stories that are just as violent, if not more so, than what Joker makes the news for. He is another violent man for the media to milk for ratings, the US especially a hot-spot for this style of media, especially considering the numerous young men continue to take up arms against defenceless children
Unlike pointless media arguments that never solve a thing, usually following another shooting, Joker clearly recognises the problems that both sides pose. Early into the film he is on seven different medications, simply wanting to be happy. Personally I am on six, and I am far from comfortable with this fact. After the funding supporting his doctor his cut, so too are all the meds that may or may not have been keeping Arthur subdued. But to stop taking any medication without warning, otherwise known as cold turkey, is a recipe for a broken mind and body, as one must deal with cravings that the body conjures, having been stripped of drugs it has been taking daily.
It is a fierce but appropriate commentary on most doctors’ extreme generosity, whether they are heavy opiates for minor pain, or anti-psych meds, intended for schizophrenics, handed out due to complaints of mild anxiety. Rather than a last resort, medication in the US seems to be the complete opposite, meaning it is far from surprising to learn repeatedly that many of these shooters were on such a medication when planning and taking action. Given Arthur was on seven different medications, and expected to manage each himself, it would seem that the film isn’t focusing on mental illness as the main problem, though it is also obviously a big factor.
Representing the other side of the common argument is the availability of guns in the US. This is handled in a subtler way, as Arthur doesn’t buy a gun from Walmart as the stereotypical statement goes, rather he is given one free of charge by a colleague, a unique but still powerful way to depict how easy it is for any US citizen to obtain a lethal firearm like this.
Filled with truths that hold a horridly ugly mirror to our society, perhaps the only fault here is that Arthur is for the most part painted as a victim. But any person who has experienced serious neglect and/or abuse as a child knows that is near impossible to feel like a victim. It doesn’t excuse his or any real-life actions, but it does offer a reasonable and frankly rather obvious reason for why he eventually becomes the Joker; he can have the last laugh over a world that frequently walked all over him, one that ignored his problems when intervention was a possibility. One that kicked him around and laughed at him.
The possible early years before a mass shooter takes aim, revolving around these issues (as well as aforementioned childhood neglect) is so well written within the excellent script, as well as Phoenix’s powerful delivery of it, if one didn’t know better, they could be forgiven for thinking that they are watching the mental demise of a real man in a true story-type of film. This is simply because of the unflinching realism and the film’s restrained sensibilities, apart from the occasional exaggeration needed to present a movie about one of the biggest fictional characters in today’s public consciousness.
This near lack of sensationalism refuses to champion Arthur’s journey into madness, rather it strives to show realistic situations within the fantastical, fictional setting, as it attempts and succeeds in putting the viewer into the shoes of Arthur as he becomes further withdrawn from the outside world, a ‘loner’ if there ever was one – eventually becoming obviously delusional as a result, unaware of what horrible things he has done and may do next. His complete disconnection from reality must surely feel a dream come true for such a man, one who never caught a break in life.
Whether you see Arthur as a victim of his past, of a cruel society, of a crumbling medical system, it cannot be argued that these elements intertwine like diseased vines, and soon becoming perhaps jarringly obvious to some that his situation is much more complex than it initially seemed. This complexity though is certain to fly over the heads of certain ignorant, biased viewers who opinions on the film are formed before having even seen it, and we have no shortage of such people, some of whom are, incredibly, willing to call themselves a critic!
As the little sanity he has left dwindles and his delusions increase in severity, he reaches ‘the point of no return’, in this case meaning that any chance of his delusions ceasing are now finished. Isolated, alone, hated by those whose opinions matter to him, Joker impressively conveys what it can take to rob someone of their mental faculties, leaving them in a confused world where their only answers, their only choices, are dictated by a delusional construct of the world around them, one that will never make sense to any person but themselves.
A powerful look at the filth of the world today, as well as deep character flaws that can be direct result of this, it would surely be up for an award or two if not for apparent controversial themes that somehow have managed to upset those with the very thinnest of skins. However, ignoring this extremely loud group of people, Joker delivers the best film of the year so far, one of the best commentaries on the worst elements of our world today, as well as easily the best and deepest character study of the decade featuring Joaquin Phoenix’s best performance since The Master. The music, at times melodic and traditional but with increasingly harsh moments as the run-time goes by, is heavy in the overall audio mix, but never detracts or overpowers. This is the final ingredient to add to this amazing film. There is very little to disagree with regarding its scorching of current society, and to see such depth in a film that is an origin story for a super-villain, there is very little not to like about this, and almost nothing at all to complain about. It is a film that must be seen.