Let’s get this right out of the way at the start – “Joker” is a brilliantly executed film with a central performance that will without a doubt garner Joaquin Phoenix an Oscar nomination.
That said, this is as far a cry from the Joker’s we’ve ever seen before as Heath Ledger was from Cesar Romero. It’s not an easy film to watch – if you think about the experience of watching “Shindler’s List” – I don’t know of many people who would go into watching List thinking, “oh, this will be a hoot.” Instead it’s about it being a hard and disturbing look into the darkest parts of society and their impact on individuals who are already on the edge – and when happens when and individual is pushed hard off of that ledge into the abyss.
Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, an individual suffering from neurological damage, systemic abuse, and his own plethora of demons. You get the sense from the outset that he is doing his best to fit in and play the part of “normal,” while not really understanding what it means. When a child on a bus smiles at him, and Arthur plays back by making faces so that the child laughs the mother chides him for bothering her son.
In the stress reaction to her berating him he begins to laugh – and we’re unclear if this is at her or the situation but even as he tries to control his laughter it still forces itself out as a choking gasp. He hands her a card reading, “Forgive my laughter. I have a condition,” and it goes on to say how he laughs, but it does not correlate to his actual feelings or emotions.
The movie doesn’t try to excuse his actions, but attempts to give reasons for them. He’s not someone who has a supportive life, but turns dark anyway. He’s someone who wants to make people happy and do well, but he’s mocked at every turn (including by a Johnny Carson-style character Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro) and beaten by city youths and businessmen alike.
The Gotham in “Joker” is pre-Batman, with the parallels of the dark 70’s-era New York being rampant. The city is in the midst of all but outright upper-class vs lower-class warfare, with Brett Cullen as Thomas Wayne running for mayor and all but fanning the flames of the underlying tension of the city.
There is little in the film to make it feel like a comic-book origin story. Other than the Wayne name being invoked, and it being set in Gotham, this could as readily be any other dark-drama of a descent into madness and pushed against the wall. The audience is intended while not to support his actions, but to come to understand how he got here, and where he’ll go. Evil of the kind that exists in Arthur needs to exist to an extent to begin with, it’s not just formed out of nothing. However as each of the chains binding the Pandora’s box represent his goodness and as each one is broken from the outside, the lid gets forced out a little more.
This is not a film for younger children or for anyone who will be deeply bothered by seeing someone trying to make people happy being beat on a whim. Where someone getting their dream moment, even if failing, then being mocked on national television for a laugh. It’s not easy to watch, but it’s an amazing ride if you’re ready to get on it.
Todd Phillip’s “Joker” is rated R and open in theaters everywhere.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.