A timeless setting and a familiar struggle dressed up like a sadistic clown.
In a destitute Gotham City with social services being cut and trash piling up in the streets, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) scrapes by as a clown-for-hire when not caring for his mother Penny (Frances Conroy). Dreaming of becoming a stand-up comedian to one day appear on his favorite late-night show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), circumstances are rarely in Arthur’s favor… up until a fateful night involving three young men harassing a young woman on a train. With Arthur out of a job and out of meds, his ailing mother is inexplicably convinced Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) would help them both if he only knew of their circumstances. Meanwhile, the overlooked citizenry is on edge, ready to riot against city leaders if presented with the right spark… or the right smile.
From Cesar Romero in “Batman” 1966 to Heath Ledger’s The Dark Knight take and even Mark Hamill’s mind-bending animated vocals, “The Joker” has had plenty of incarnations. Revealed backstory or not, this particular member of the Dark Knight’s rogues gallery offers a glimpse into unaccountable madness and has always been more fascinating than the hero fighting him. Viewers seeing early peeks and trailers for Joker have poked fun at the newest interpretation, including him being the product of a “forty-hour work week” rather than a PTSD sufferer or falling into a vat of chemicals. Joaquin Phoenix has played similar characters in Arthur’s overlooked circumstances — the exemplary film Her, for example — but in a similar way that Christopher Nolan reinterpreted Batman Begins for his trilogy, director Todd Phillips chose to strip away the hi-tech comic book trappings to focus upon a down-to-earth, gritty wallow in the dirt. Are audiences ready for a superhero-less Joker origin story designed to walk the line between nihilism and gratuitous violence?
While painted as an origin story for a character who never needed one, Joker cribs elements from known sources before going off completely on its own. It works as an entirely alternative universe story, recasting a mysterious rogue as the one wronged with nothing to lose… not to mention incidentally starting a movement. For this incarnation of a familiar comic and cinematic character, Joaquin Phoenix appears to embrace the emaciated appearance of Christian Bale’s The Machinist (prehaps Batman and Joker have the same dietician) and a descent from resisting madness to embracing it. Less Falling Down and more Fight Club, an anti-hero discovers the power of invisibility, self-delusion, and murder before bringing all three to bear in choosing evil, and it’s hard to look away while still being hard to watch.
Two factors stand out in this storyline. One is Arthur being invisible to the point of feeling as though he doesn’t exist — a highly relatable state of being — before discovering it’s kind of a super-power… and can be used for good or evil. The second is a production design that feels intentionally 1970s while standing in as a modern model of social relevance in today’s political climate. Violent protesters brandishing “resist” signs manage to seem both crazed and yet prophetic, a warning of mob mentality when many feel wronged or forgotten without strictly passing judgment. While Arthur’s story is more personal than the suffering masses reaching a boiling point, the herd is looking for a symbol… or at least someone they believe can be held up as one. With so many scheming and clever Jokers who’ve come before, Arthur is very nearly incidental, planning nothing and allowing circumstance and chaos to guide him; you can’t get much more Joker-ish than that.
Still, the “Batman aesthetic” is essentially a candy coating that helps the medicine go down, and like today, can be seen in one of two ways. Arthur comes to believe he was doomed from the start in a society stacked against him, driving him to desperation as wealthy nobles are allowed to play at the expense of the less-elite. The societal point-of-view is that Arthur’s motivations are a suggested self-sustaining delusion, a continued circumstance of his own making while he selfishly chooses to blame others who callously overlook him. In truth, blame is on all sides, and whether fantasy or reality, the film suggests polite society breeds Arthurs who could erupt into Jokers if pushed enough. The solution is as simple as it is impossible: having empathy for others and contributing to work together for the benefit of all. Whether intended as a strong statement or a dire warning, it’s a literal shot in the face that makes one think, and that is worth the price of admission.
Joker is rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language, brief sexual images, and getting bloody footprints all over my nice clean floor.
Four skull recommendation out of four
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