In Joker, failed comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) works as a clown to pay the bills and lives at home with his sickly mother. Beaten down by a society coming apart at the seams, Fleck struggles to maintain a positive outlook yet desperately wants to make people laugh. Struggling to find his way, Fleck soon begins to act out his frustrations in increasingly violent ways as he slowly transforms into the criminal mastermind known as the Joker.
Written and directed by Todd Phillips, Joker feels like an unexpected twist in his career trajectory. With films such as The Hangover trilogy and Old School leading his portfolio, an exploration of the dark underbelly of humour may seem like a vast departure from his previous work. In many ways, however, Joker also feels like a nature progression. Whereas many of his previous films have dealt with middle-aged men working out their emotional issues through the use of humour, Joker simply flips the switch by digging around in the psychology under the laughter instead of focusing on the gags themselves. While the film is bound to be divisive due to its dark themes and violence, Phillips has created a character arc so compelling that every scene feels like a vital piece to the most complicated of mental puzzles.
Added to the mix is Joaquin Phoenix who absolutely shines as the hopeful but hurting Fleck. Over the years, the character of the Joker has provided multiple actors opportunity to push themselves and, thankfully, Phoenix carves out his own unique place in the canon. In an Oscar-worthy performance, Phoenix is simply mesmerizing as the failed comedian, giving him a likeable quality amidst his brokenness that makes you want to root for him (until you simply can’t anymore). Without question, Joker is very much the hero of his solo film—but the nature of that heroism eventually gets called into question.
Whereas the Joker has been often presented as a mysterious ‘force of nature’, here he is very much a product of his culture. Living in the slum-like Narrows of Gotham city Fleck’s life is a comedy of errors. Bullied for his job as a clown and living with his mother, Fleck has dreams of making other people laugh as a stand-up comic. His mother waits faithfully for a severance check from the wealthy Thomas Wayne that will never come. He’s in love with the beautiful tenant across the hall who may or may not be interested in him. Like the rest of those in the Narrows, success for Fleck is something that is constantly in view but just out of reach. While he’s constantly laughing on the outside, there’s little joy within him. (Interestingly, in one of the more intriguing story points for his character, his constant laughter stems from a medical condition that causes him to do so regardless of what’s happening around him.) For Arthur Fleck, life is no joke as his desire to matter in the eyes of others is consistently spat upon by the world.
What’s more, this perspective echoes the film’s portrayal of Gotham itself, choosing to look at life through the eyes of those who are struggling to get by each day. Set years away from the arrival of the Dark Knight, Gotham is at a tipping point as the rich become richer and the poor more helpless. Anger and frustration run deep within those living in the Narrows as they become viewed as ‘troublemakers’ and yes, ‘jokers’ instead of people in need. Even Thomas Wayne, who has been painted in previous visions as a saint who wanted to see the city thrive, is skewed here as an irrelevant billionaire who remains out of touch with the common people.
In Joker, hope remains out of reach for much of the city. In a city that mirrors the broken spirit of American culture, the 99% have grown angry with their way of life and want desperately for their voices to be heard. Then, when an unknown attacker kills three businessmen on a subway, tensions within the city begin to bubble over as talk of revolution hits the streets.
In light of this, the most terrifying aspect of the film stems from its realism. Instead of chemical transformations or superpowered villains, Joker shows what can happen when a city loses its grace for the downtrodden of humanity. Although Fleck’s actions become reprehensible, they stem from his inability to process the abuse of a culture that has turned its back on him. “I used to think my life was a tragedy,” he moans, “but now I know that it’s really a comedy.” Light becomes lost in a world that has succumbed to the shadows and Joker gleefully dances into the darkness. (Is it any wonder that the film has been referred to by Phillips as a ‘cautionary tale’?)
Despite its bleak outlook on the world, Joker truly is one of the years best and most creative films. Phoenix’ performance as the Clown Prince of Crime may take him to dark places but there remains a brokenness within him for much of the film which humanizes him. Pressure from all sides to succumb to a culture of despair, Arthur Fleck’s journey is less of a comic book film and more about what happens when a world fails to listen to those who need it most.
And the outcome of that is no laughing matter.
Joker laughs its way into theatres on Friday, October 4th, 2019.