A Tragedy Or A Comedy
Does The Newest Adaptation Of Joker Live Up To Its Predecessors?
October 16, 2019
Throw out everything you know about the joker. In DC’s newest rendition of the comic classic villain, Director Todd Phillips creates an entirely original and modern version of the clown price of crime, in a story never before explored.
Warning: this review contains spoilers for ‘Joker’ (2019) Readers be warned!
From the beginning, we are instantly thrown into a dark world. Gotham City is in the middle of a garbage strike, and it is made clear the city is struck with chaos and violence. All the viewer is given is a strange image of a man uncontrollably seemingly both laughing and crying, a large testament of the film to come. The man is introduced to the viewer as Arthur Fleck, a man with obvious mental illness who relies on medication to get him through his days.
Arthur works as a clown in the middle of busy Gotham, and it’s through his occupation that most of his struggles occur. He is constantly criticized and made fun of, and we soon get the viewpoint of a broken man. It’s through Arthur’s pursuit of happiness that you truly realize there may be no hope for him.
One thing I thought stood out very strongly about the film was the new interpretation of Joaquin Phoenix as Joker. His version of the character was unlike any other in the fact that we see him as a real man, living a somewhat normal life, and struggling to live with his ‘condition’ as it is referred to throughout the duration of the movie. Phoenix delivers a truly unsettling performance which contributes to the overall mood of the film extremely well, especially through his incessant laughter which leaves you intrigued but also disturbed. The laughter is a major plot point, as the Joker’s signature maniacal laugh never had an origin per se, so Todd Phillips took his own twist on the character, explaining that Arthur cannot actually control the laugh, and it could occur at any time as a part of his ‘condition’.
An extreme criticism the film received was that it portrayed mental health in a very irresponsible and chaotic manor, as one of the turning points of the movie shows Arthur kill three men on a train with a gun. Although the scene is very vulgar and violent, it is ultimately necessary to develop the character of Arthur Fleck into Joker. At no point does the film try to solve Arthur’s mental health issues, but that is not the point of the film. The point is to show a psychotic villain, not to coddle the viewer and tell them that everything is going to be okay, and that this character will receive a happy ending. The film also takes place in the early 1980’s, a time where little to none was actually known pertaining to mental illness. Fleck later even states later in the film that he has always been this way, but he never accepted it until now.
In terms of creating a new story, Todd Phillips successfully did just that. He took a comic villain that had been done so many times, but gave him human characteristics and a long-awaited origin story on film. It is a very realistic adaptation of just what can drive a man to insanity, and the relationship between Arthur and his mother is one of the relationships that helps drive the whole story, as it shows that not everything you are told is always true.
One of the more prominent plot points of the film revolves around Thomas Wayne, father of our favorite Caped Crusader Batman, and Arthur Fleck’s mother Penny. She is insistent that Wayne is Arthur’s father, but you later find out Penny is extremely delusional, and was admitted to the mental hospital for a long period of time. Delusions are an aspect of the film that you as the viewer do not even realize are present up until this moment, and then it all hits you at once. Arthur’s “girlfriend” was never actually his girlfriend, it was simply a figment of his imagination. In the last hour of the film, you are constantly asking yourself what is reality and what is simply in Fleck’s mind.
The final sequence of the movie has to be the most impressive aspect of Joker for me. It is here where we see Arthur truly make the transition into the man who is Joker, as he dons his signature face paint and green hair. A recurring theme all throughout is the soundtrack that plays in Arthur’s mind, as he dances his way through Gotham, and turns evil moments into a sick and twisted joke. Phoenix’s dialogue on the ending talk show is truly impressive here, and ironically enough, it is the most the character talks in the whole film. When he kills Murray Franklin live on the air, this is the penultimate moment of the movie, and when we realize that there is no saving Fleck. He has embraced being Joker.
There is almost no dialogue in the final ten minutes of the film, and we are instead flooded by strong cinematic shots of a Gotham City in chaos, flooded with supporters of Joker. It is here where in my opinion the most jaw-dropping moment occurs, as we see the deaths of Martha and Thomas Wayne in the infamous movie theater alleyway that is seen as the beginning of Batman’s story. It provides an extremely unexpected and new moment in the Batman universe, as Joker has now become the sole reason for Batman’s existence. It is in the riot where Phoenix delivers his final scene as Joker, dancing on a police vehicle flooded by his supporters all wearing clown masks. This is a truly eerie series of events which leave the viewer still in shock, but also mesmerized by the amazing cinematography occurring on screen.
Through great original storytelling and insight, Joker truly hits it out of the park and delivers an honestly unsettling film which constantly leaves the viewer wanting more. For once, I’m actually excited for a DC film, with Zach Snyder’s ‘The Batman’ scheduled for a 2021 release.
From the perils of Gotham, Todd Philipps’ Joker portrays an alternative version of Batman’s arch nemesis.
In the film, Joker is played by Joaquin Phoenix, whos’ identity in this film is Arthur Fleck a failure of a comedian in the shadiest parts of Gotham. The story is told through the perspective of Fleck as his sanity is slowly deposited throughout the film. The first notation that this movie’s portrayal of Joker will be significantly different occurs in the opening scene where Joker is in front of a mirror mimicking the signature sinister smile that Joker is known for. In terms of plot, the movie is successful in separating Fleck and Joker as two separate individuals, where Fleck assumes the latter at the climax of the film.
The movie then transitions into an office with Fleck and his Social Worker Debra Kane played by Sharon Washington. In this scene Fleck appears to be crying and laughing as he attempts to speak to Kane who appears disinterested and apathetic to Fleck’s breakdown. The distinct contrast between Kane and Fleck heightens the boundary set between the individuals who only have a desk separating them.
From the opening scene Fleck is then transferred to the front of a shop where he performs his act as a dancing clown to advertise a sale. During which a group of adolescent boys robs Fleck of his sign sending him on a spree to retrieve the sign, the scene however does reveal a telling aspect of the society that Fleck lives in. In his chase, Fleck screams for assistance however the other individuals that observe the pursuit do nothing to help Fleck creating a theme of isolation and despair. What should also be noted for later is the eroded components of the city, as the movie progresses the city appears to get murkier as Fleck assumes the identity of Joker.
Turning the corner Fleck is struck with the sign causing him to fall and the pack of boys begins to beat Fleck into submission. One of the smaller notations of this scene that is the hesitation the smallest boy of the group experiences when the others begin brutalizing Fleck. This embrace of violence is shown throughout the film showing the devolution of society in the face of protest. As Fleck lays on the ground helpless the idea of submission depicts that this type of violence has been a routine part of his life as he shields his neck rather than his face a hallmark of prioritizing defense.
On his return to the place of his employment he is given a gun by a coworker who instructs him to use it for self-defense given the time period. As Fleck continues to devolve the significance of the gun changes as the movie progresses. Aboard a subway Fleck still in clown uniform shoots 3 passengers who attempted to brutalize him once more. Fleck’s initial reaction to the killing directly contrasts his almost frightened nature towards the gun in an earlier scene. As Fleck chases another one of the passengers from the subway, he shoots the gun without hesitation and proceeds to run into the night.
As word of his crime spreads Fleck gradually transitions to Joker, a man without hesitation for killing and acceptance for what is described as his ‘condition’. Fleck then proceeds to kill the coworker who gave him the gun in front of another coworker showing that his killing only applies for what is necessary, rather than brute force and retaliation. It is also at this point that Fleck dives into an identity crisis believing that Thomas Wayne is his father according to his mother who is also mentally ill. However, it is revealed after Fleck steals his mother’s records that she was brutalized by her ex-boyfriend and was only employed for Wayne but began obsessing about him which is shown in all the scenes that she is present in.
Gotham at this chapter has then ensued into chaos where protesters wearing the sinister clown mask begin to riot against an unequal society that Fleck has officially adopted the identity of Joker and kills his role model Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro on live television. The city is then catapulted into disaster as Joker is whisked away by a police car observing the chaos with his signature laugh. During the resolution it appears Joker will be taken to jail but as the car crosses an intersection it is hit with a truck and Joker is swarmed pulled from the car hoisted into the arms of the rioting civilians.
A hallmark scene for many who watched the film was the depiction of Batman’s parents being murdered heightening the complex relationship between Joker and Batman and the opportunity to continue the franchise based on this timeline.
Throughout Joker the acting for the film is decent, however, the delivery of the scenes organizationally does raise greater critique. At one point it is revealed that the sequence the Joker had with his love interest was just a facade, making the delivery almost comedic and extremely predictable. The almost lazy directing of the scene does not raise questions as to what is happening and lulls the audience into the predictability as one of the most cheesiest aspects of the film.
Another disappointing feature of the film is the constant necessity for reveal after reveal and retracting information that Joker learns. While this element is used to describe Joker having no true identity other than the one he has constructed Phoenix’s sloppy work during the scenes does not gravitate some to continue watching.
The film did however create some grotesquely gory scenes, which were perfectly executed, had the movie set this as the entire tone of despair and isolation it would have complimented the ironic tones much more. Having the contrast between the comedic undertones and depressing sequences would have created a stronger film and a more impactful Joker.
Given the critiques the movie did receive controversy for its portrayal of mental illness and its correlation to violence. The commentary does hold some value, considering the design of the film where without medication Fleck becomes Joker, which may be isolated as an interpretation of mental illness. Where the critique lacks value is the expression that is advocates those who are mentally ill as violent, the reason Joker is violent is in defensive scenes not for the sake of his devolving sanity. Another aspect of the film that garnered controversy was its violence, however as a viewer who prefers gore or a classic thriller the movie did deliver beautifully in that setting, although it’s not the first gory film to exist either.
Although Philipps interpretation of the film is unique the movie does fall short in more than one ways. While some find the cheesy qualities as a strong focal point the movie did fall short in delivering crucial aspects of Flecks transition to Joker.