Huh, where to begin…
When the first images of Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker unexpectedly appeared, the audience quickly divided into two camps.
One camp had already written off the film from the start, signaling that Joaquin’s portrayal of the legendary villain didn’t look promising, and that no one could surpass the legendary Heath Ledger and his incarnation of the Joker in “The Dark Knight”. This raised the question of the point of a Joker film without Batman.
The other camp defended Joaquin Phoenix. A man nominated several times for the Oscar, Golden Globe, and BAFTA, and who has under his belt leading (and notably unique) roles in successful and award-winning films (“Gladiator”, “The Master”, “Walk the Line”, “Her”, “Signs”), is not someone to be underestimated, even when legendary rivals like the late Heath Ledger, as well as still kicking Jack Nicholson and Mark Hamill, and Jared Leto are considered.
Since it’s quite obvious which side was right (even if you haven’t seen the film yet, haven’t heard of Joaquin Phoenix, and have lived under a rock for the last 20 years, surely your neighbor under the other rock has already told you), let’s quickly skim over the plot and turn to the acting and the meaning of the film.
Arthur Fleck is a guy who works part-time as a clown (parties, hospitals, advertisements, and the like) while trying to become a stand-up comedian. Our Arthur, in addition to depression and other mental health issues, suffers from a neurological disorder that causes unexpected bouts of uncontrollable laughter, which, of course, doesn’t help him fit into societal norms. As a result, he leads a rather reclusive life (already being considered a weirdo) and tries to battle his illness with medication available only through social services. He cares for his elderly mother, who can’t leave the apartment and spends her days watching television or persistently writing letters to billionaire Thomas Wayne, hoping for a response (since she worked for him and his family when she was young). It must be admitted, life is not easy for him, but he fights. And he always tries to keep a smile on his face.
He knows nothing about his father, so he sees almost fatherly figures only in billionaire Thomas Wayne and talk-show host Murray Franklin.
Soon after getting fired because of a setup by a colleague who gave him a gun (as “self-defense,” though knowing well that Arthur is mentally ill and shouldn’t have a firearm), and it fell out in a hospital where he was entertaining sick children (don’t ask), Arthur experiences a laughing fit while riding the subway. Unfortunately, at that moment, three drunken businessmen thugs working for Thomas Wayne’s corporation are also on the train and, not giving him a chance to explain why he’s laughing, start brutally beating Arthur.
A frightened Arthur (and also frustrated with everything), in an attempt to defend himself, shoots and kills the three businessmen, then flees the crime scene and tries to continue leading a “normal” life. Soon after the murders become public, Arthur’s life begins to drastically change, as the people do not condemn these killings. On the contrary…
And we’ll stop here. 😀
Acting… if I had to describe Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in one short sentence, it would be: “He nailed it!” 😀 Without a doubt, he is the star of the film, but not just because he’s in the lead role. From the first minute you hear that disturbing laugh, through his gaze to his appearance (the man lost more than twenty kilograms for the role… just think of similar transformations by Christian Bale, Jake Gyllenhaal, or Matthew McConaughey), you swallow a lump and feel uneasy when you see his transformation, first at the beginning of the film, and then an even more disturbing psychological transformation during the film! The actor reportedly watched videos of people with pathological disorders that cause uncontrollable laughter to try to authentically get into the role! Rest assured, drastic physical transformation, combined with delving into the psyche of a mentally ill character with their own worldview, is not something that can be done without consequences for the actor himself. It’s a dangerous level of commitment. And Joaquin Phoenix did it masterfully, truly deserving an Oscar. His presence is so powerful that even Zazie Beetz, Brett Cullen, Frances Conroy, or Robert De Niro, in their supporting roles, cannot shine as brightly.
So, I think it’s obvious that I liked the acting in this film (“Hahahahahahaha” – note from the Joker). 😁
An especially interesting detail in the film is that the viewer often isn’t sure whether some events actually happened or if everything just took place in Arthur Fleck’s head. I don’t know why, but I immediately thought of the movie “Inception.”
The audio-visual aspect of the film is also beautifully integrated, successfully portraying Gotham City, filled with misery, conflict, despair, and people’s callousness. The hopelessness that has engulfed the people, a sense of being lost, distrust towards the authorities (and especially the wealthy citizens), and an overall sense of tension (which culminates soon after the murder of three men in the subway), framed in the overall greyness of the grim Gotham City, truly leave an impression on the viewer. Keep in mind, this is the period before Bruce Wayne became the Dark Knight, and detective James Gordon was just starting his career in Gotham.
Besides the acting of the main character, one of the champions of the film is also the message that “Joker” carries.
What is, in my opinion, an indisputable fact, is that society “created” the Joker. Yes, society. With its callousness, carelessness, and self-interest. Arthur Fleck is a person with (mental) problems, but the realization is that he, in himself, was not (such a) danger to his surroundings. However, the selfishness, arrogance, and lack of empathy of people around him are what pushed Arthur Fleck “into the abyss” from which an anarchist who completely lost his compass was born, embittered by the behavior of people.
“Joker” is also a critique of modern society. A warning that our disinterest in others and lack of desire to (at least try to) understand others can have consequences far more far-reaching than we can imagine. Society’s and authorities’ disinterest in the most vulnerable is what can breed chaos. Of course, the fact is we can’t help everyone, we can’t all live full of money and health, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to at least ease the life of those who need help the most. Undoubtedly, we live in times when we are trying to survive and often don’t have the financial means, or even the strength or will, to devote ourselves to others. But, if we were to devote ourselves (just a little) to people in our environment, we might never even be aware of how much we could have directed someone’s life on the right path. Think about that.
Now, I don’t want to delve into whether Arthur Fleck is the “real” Joker from the comics and movies or not. According to some, he is the Joker who will later become Batman’s greatest enemy. According to others, he is the person who will influence the “birth” of the real Joker. Considering connection with Heath Ledger’s Joker doesn’t make sense, as Ledger’s Joker appears as an already formed villain, a psychopathic anarchist, while Joaquin’s Joker is a creation in the making. If you ask me, at this moment I don’t think this Joker is the comic/movie Joker. At this point, I don’t see his potential as an extremely intelligent mastermind wreaking havoc in Gotham (and I think he would be too old a rival for Batman who is yet to appear, say, in about ten years), but time will tell.
Since this film is on its way to earning a billion dollars and becoming the most profitable R-rated film of all time, there are already talks of making a sequel. On one hand, as much as I would like to see a sequel (the possibilities in the sequel are limitless, from Arthur Fleck falling even deeper into his madness, to becoming a revolutionary, to the appearance of another iconic villain, or maybe even a young Batman), on the other hand, I feel that this film is a complete entity and ended at the perfect moment. But, money will always take precedence over art, won’t it? 😀
Keep one thing in mind: this film is DEFINITELY not for children. It’s nice that they love Batman and his enemies, but this is not the comic book “classic” origin of the Joker, and I think the psychological aspect of the film will not be best understood by the younger audience. From that perspective, it is definitely 18+.
This is a film that will be talked about for years to come, there’s no doubt, for many reasons. From acting, to the plot and box office earnings, to the psychological profile of the hero and societal analysis, as well as the fact that certain comic/movie villains don’t always need a hero as a counterbalance to be successful (while watching this film, you don’t even think about Batman).
Definitely an Oscar-worthy film (at least for Joaquin Phoenix). Period.
And you, dear reader? Joaquin Phoenix or Heath Ledger?
(Originally reviewed: 15/11/2019)