I made the decision early on that I would wait to see Todd Phillips’ team-up with Joaquin Phoenix once it came out on home media. I wasn’t going to sit through what I’d heard about as a two-hour trip down a slowly degenerating road of mental illness and deep emotional hurt. Sure, it was loosely tied to the legends of Gotham City, to Bruce Wayne’s family and the clown-themed villain who laughed as Jack Nicholson and creeped as Heath Ledger. But the deeper narratives lurking around what I heard about Joker made it a film I’d wait for. I’m glad I did, but it still wasn’t what I expected.
Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is lost in his own head, while terrorized by bankers on a subway and bullies in the clown company he keeps. He cares for his mother in a way that could be fairly psycho-analyzed by people smarter than I am, but he’s drawn to the down-the-hall neighbor (Zazie Beetz) who has a similar cynical take on life. But this isn’t about anyone other than Fleck and his hanging on what his mother has told him about her relationship with city aristocrat Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) and his fascination with talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro).
All of this material ends up where you’d expect a Joker-themed film would, but not how you expect. It’s a reminder that hurt people hurt people and that the cycle of violence goes on unimpeded while people keep hurting each other. It’s a crazed, nearly casual reminder about how mental illness takes us (and society) places that we don’t want to go. It’s a warning about guns and violence. And it’s a tongue-in-cheek commentary about how we’ve glorified all of those things and allowed them to be part of our society in a way that’s just sort of expected. Is it shocking or run of the mill, or commentary or entertainment, or sympathetic or condemning? Maybe it’s all of these.
With Phoenix’s Golden Globes win for Best Actor, it stands to reason the film will get more attention – even while Phoenix’s speech makes it tricky to determine when he’s acting and how settled he actually is! But it’s not so much about the attention the film gets as it is about the impact it has on those who see it and the way they approach violence the next time they are faced with a choice to operate out of anger or not.
Special features include a making of featurette, alternate takes by Phoenix, and more.
Warner Bros. provided a free copy of the film in exchange for this review.