At one point or another, everyone has felt the anguish of being on the outside, has experienced the darkness of trying your best just to have the world laugh at your efforts. The traditional comic origin story for the Joker character in Batman’s Gotham City is that he was disfigured by a vat of industrial chemicals that turned him into an amoral wacko. The dark, intense and brilliant 2019 Joker film has a decidedly different take on the supervillain’s origin, however. In this retelling, Joker is a loser, a perpetually downtrodden and disrespected man called Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). He dreams of being a stand-up comedian, but he’s just not funny and everything he tries turns out to be a fail.
The film opens in early 1980s era Gotham City (an always handy stand-in for New York City) and it’s ugly. There’s a garbage worker’s strike so the streets are piled high with stinking, rotting trash and there are rats everywhere. Gotham is perpetually dark, everything’s covered with graffiti and the city is populated with the poor who just can’t get ahead and are getting angry about it. When did the world become this unfair? Sure, there are the rich, as exemplified by scion Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) and his soon-to-be-megarich son Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson), but for most everyone else it’s a town where no-one’s going anywhere but down. Arthur lives with his sickly mother Penny (Frances Conroy), who keeps hoping that her former employer Thomas Wayne will help them escape their tenement apartment. Down the hall is Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz), a single mother who befriends Arthur, seemingly the only kind person in the city.
Hired as a clown by the HaHa Clown Company, Arthur finds the streets of Gotham are unforgiving, and when a group of young thugs beat him, the boss says it’s up to him to pay for the replacement sign, fight or no fight. Fellow street clown Randall (Glenn Fleshler) gives Arthur a pistol for self-defense, but it’s a really bad idea for a man who is unstable, depressed and mentally ill. When he’s assaulted again, this time on the subway by a group of preppy Wall Street types, he finally explodes and kills all three of them. The establishment is outraged, but downtrodden citizens see a savior in the murderous clown dubbed “Joker” by the media: Finally, someone who is fighting the rich for the rights of the poor.
Unemployed, Arthur decides to try stand-up comedy. After all, he’s been telling his social worker therapist and everyone else he meets that it’s his dream, that he was born to make people laugh. It’s painful to watch Fleck on stage, trying to make the audience laugh but failing miserably. So badly that a video of his maniacal laughing at the mic ends up as a taunting segment on the popular nighttime TV interview show of Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). You can well imagine his reaction when Arthur and his mother are watching their favorite, the Murray Franklin show, and realize Arthur’s horrible on-stage experience that’s being paraded in front of millions of Gotham viewers for their entertainment. It’s bullying on a massive scale.
It’s the early 80s in Gotham City and the city’s budget keeps shrinking too. The city is in a terrible way and when Fleck’s social worker tells him that they’ve lost funding and are closing down the office, he realizes that there’s now no way for him to get the critical medications he’s been taking. Everything that can go wrong does, and it doesn’t take much to push Fleck to rock bottom. The story proceeds from there, a dark, intense tale of the downtrodden, the mentally ill, and how they might react when every hope is lost and there’s nothing left to lose.
Director Todd Phillips and the production team have succeeded at creating a horrible underbelly to the shiny metropolis of Gotham City and while we cringe at Joker’s behavior in the latter part of the film, we can’t help but cringe for Arthur throughout the movie too. The man just can’t get a break. A child smiles at him on the bus, so he starts clowning around, just to have the mother turn and swear at him to “leave my child alone!”. No-one is kind, no-one cares about him, no-one really even notices he exists, and that’s really what turns Arthur into Joker; that desperate human need to be seen and acknowledged. To be loved.
Joaquin Phoenix is astounding in the role too, a performance that absolutely should garner him an Oscar as best actor. He owns the screen and never lets go, and we, as the audience, watch enthralled, even knowing that at some point in the film it’s going to take a terribly dark and violent turn. With some help from the intense and constant low thrum of the Hildur Gudnadottir soundtrack, you’ll feel a growing anxiety from the opening shot. The intensity of the film is quite remarkable and if you think comic book movies perforce are light and silly affairs, well, you haven’t been paying attention to the recent generation of cinematic offerings. You definitely will be blown away by Joker.
What makes Joker so enthralling is that we can all identify with facets of Arthur’s story. We’ve all been rejected, embarrassed, tried our best just to fail, and have all been told by someone that we won’t amount to much of anything. You fight, you try again, you dream, but eventually where are you if it’s never a success, you’re never ahead of the game, you’re always the first guy fired, kicked, or spat upon? That Phoenix delivers the performance of a lifetime doesn’t hurt either: He very much is Arthur Fleck and, cringing and covering our eyes, we watch him descend into the madness that transforms him into Joker.
Joker is a fantastic and intense film that absolutely deserves its “R” rating. All I could think of when the final credits started rolling was “Wow”. And then finally could take a few calming breaths to get back into my body so I could stand up and leave the theater. This is what cinema is all about, a completely immersive experience that brilliantly conveys its era and the essential humanity of its story, with all the ugliness, and its effect on a man who was already losing his tenuous grip on reality. Highly recommended.