From the first moment of Joker, it’s clear that this is no ordinary comic book based movie. A super-villain origin story, it’s drawn from the familiar DC Comics villain of the Batman series, and is, just barely, consistent with that character, or with facets of the character’s various movie incarnations — just enough so to make him recognisable and not an entirely new fictional villain borrowing the name of The Joker. It is, however, an original take on the character, much of it light years from the DC comic. The story itself is so dark, so morbid, so intensely tragic, and the character so damaged and twisted, that the points of contact with the original comic book villain, and the references to the comic book universe, are not so much familiar as jarring. The earlier versions come across as almost innocent in contrast. The maniacal Joker of the original Batman series, and even the grotesquely evil Heath Ledger version in The Dark Knight, seem tame beside Joaquin Phoenix’s brilliantly eccentric, many-layered performance as the man who would become the Joker.
In this variation on the Joker origin story, the famous future villain is Arthur Fleck, a pathetically unsuccessful man, first seen eking out a living as a rent-a-clown. Fleck is harassed by people in the street, ignored by his co-workers. He suffers from chronic depression, depending on public assistance for the prescription medications that barely stave off his mental instability. He also lives with, and provides care for, his elderly, severely ill mother, Penny Fleck (perfectly played by Frances Conroy). His life is narrow and unhappy, but Arthur struggles to make the best of his lot, to be kind to those who despise him, and to doggedly ward off hopelessness. He tries, and usually fails, to amuse children with his clown routine, hoping against hope to ingratiate himself with the perpetually surly public; and makes futile plans of becoming a successful stand-up comic. The unhappy but tender scenes with his failing mother are painful in their hopelessness; and Arthur’s encounters with the outside world still more so. Arthur’s plaintive question recurs throughout the film: why are people so terrible to one another?
At first glance, Arthur Fleck is unlikely as a potential villain. He has a great deal to resent, but no greed, no ambition, no apparent interest in power; and while he deplores Gotham City’s cruelty, he works to remain a good man in the face of evil. One after another, like falling dominoes, a series of setbacks make Arthur’s situation more untenable, and in his struggle to survive, we begin to see the depraved criminal he could become. What is significant about Arthur’s decline is the fairly specific, outward catalysts that bring it about, a series of events that amount to social commentary. Arthur’s decline comes from poverty, lack of resources, and a painfully harsh environment; his serious downward spiral begins when public funding for his already inadequate mental health treatment are cut – the kind of crisis many Americans endure, but which is oddly real and specific for a comic book character.
As Arthur’s life becomes increasingly unmanageable, his efforts to find support from others – his fellow clowns, a pretty neighbour who is friendly toward him (Zazie Beetz), his sickly mother – offer hope but ultimately fail. Still more disappointment results from his naive admiration of a favourite television star (Robert De Niro) who gives the Joker his nickname and becomes a significant catalyst for Arthur’s ultimate fate.
It is Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker that really makes the film. Phoenix is weirdly brilliant from beginning to end, giving a performance which is by turns heartbreaking and frightening. His performance is extremely physical, beginning with the melancholy Arthur’s repulsively pitiful effort at a cheerful smile, and his cringing response to life’s repeated blows, literal and otherwise; and moving on to the ominous, dance-like movements that mark the emergence of the villainous side of Arthur’s psyche; the gambolling as he transforms into the expected evil clown; and finally, the full and emancipating acceptance of physical violence as a solution to his troubles. In the actor’s hands, Arthur Fleck remains faintly sinister even in his early, meek persona, and continues to be heartbreaking and oddly sympathetic at his most dangerous. It is an indescribable portrayal by an ingenious and completely fearless actor.
One slightly disturbing aspect of Joker is its underlying message. Arthur becomes a villain largely because of his poverty and powerlessness. When he finally strikes out, he inspires a bizarre popular movement that serves to explain the Joker’s well-known position as crime lord, one which is both abhorrently violent and, at some level, perfectly understandable. The Joker comes to represent the poor and despised, his crazed lapse into violence seen as an almost legitimate response to exploitation by the rich and powerful. The occasional, peripheral appearance of the very young Bruce Wayne and the Wayne family focus mainly on their great wealth, and their failure to aid the less fortunate of Gotham City. It is an approach that led to disquieting bursts of audience applause during some of the more savage scenes of graphic violence, because the smug, well-off victims were all too plausible targets of rage, their attackers all too easy to identify with. It’s not difficult to imagine the masks worn by some of Joker’s followers catching on in real-life protest rallies, the way Handmaid costumes are currently used. Simple comic-book tale or not, it is a message that, conceivably, could catch on in unexpected ways.
Director and co-screenwriter (with Scott Silver) Todd Phillips, responsible for a long series of fairly corny comedies (The Hangover, Due Date, War Dogs), has broken out of his rut with this production. His development of the Joker character is inventive in itself, although brought to greatness by Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal; the film is visually impressive; the characters are full and believable; and the suspense is sustained beautifully as we wait for the horror that we know will come. Phillips pays proper tribute to the original story and characters, carefully including the essential points in the Batman storyline – sometimes in fresh and unexpected ways – and making sure there are points of contact between the familiar origin story and his own expanded version. The script also indulges in the blackest of satire at times, as in the film’s final scene, which deftly, and a little shockingly, juxtaposes a murderous act by Joker with a parody of classic slapstick movie comedy.
Production designer Mark Friedberg (Paterson, Selma, If Beale Street Could Talk, Broken Flowers) deserves credit for his contribution to the film. His Gotham City is shabby and mean without becoming a caricature; the Fleck home, squalid and full of brave, pitifully inadequate efforts to decorate, tells a visual story by itself. Especially interesting is the blending of eras that makes the story almost timeless. The decor, technology, clothing, and public events evoke the golden era of comic books, the 1940s to ’60s, without making too obvious a point of looking vintage, and always carefully overlaid with the contemporary. Every visual detail adds to the story, whether by enhancing the mood of a scene, or adding a touch of irony to it.