Let’s talk about Joker.
In the most iconic telling of Joker’s backstory, the infamous comic The Killing Joke, he says that it just takes one bad day to turn someone into a villain like him. In the end, Batman sort of proves that’s not the case, though it’s left deliberately ambiguous if Joker achieves some success in this. But in that comic book, the Joker gets a tragic backstory which explains how he became the Joker in what was a complete shock to people who watched The Dark Knight and then declared that the Joker is so much better without a backstory. But even if you are one of those people, you still want to know how one of the most deranged comic book villains of all time came to be, especially when so many different comics and movies have given different reasons. So, how does it happen in Joker?
Before he was the Joker, he was Arthur Fleck. He works as a clown and has many mental health problems, though the movie doesn’t ever make clear what exactly they are. And as events happen in the movie, his mental health deteriorates and he gets incredibly violent and starts to become the comic book villain we all know today.
I mentioned Killing Joke at the start because it is the most famous backstory of the Joker. In both the comic book and recent, controversial, movie adaptation, they are very clear that the Joker was just a normal guy who had that one bad day to drive him insane. Joker doesn’t do that. Right from the beginning of the movie, they are blunt with it. Arthur Fleck is on the edge and has been for a long time. He is already very isolated, already has violent tendencies and you do feel nervous for him even when he is meant to be at his most sane and likable. Rather than the one bad day that The Killing Joke provides, all Arthur needs is a push in the wrong direction. Not that Arthur is an unlikable character destined to become the Joker, no, he seems like with the right guidance and help he could be a productive member of society. After all, we live in a society. Ok I got that meme out of the way, can you read the review instead of waiting for it now? But yes, Arthur is not irredeemable at the start.
Other than that feeling of being on the edge, something the movie enforces with its portrayal of the city of Gotham, a New York style metropolis that has garbage piling up on the streets and everyone just being incredibly angry and ready to explode, the movie deals a lot with that idea of isolation. In the end, the genesis of the Joker is not through being dropped into a vat of acid or because he loves the idea of chaos, it’s simply because he wants attention. We won’t dwell on the fact that this Joker exists for the same reason as a child has a tantrum because it is an interesting portrayal. Throughout the movie, Arthur is ignored, beaten up and treat like the dirt off someone’s shoe due to him being ‘weird’. However the first time he gets some attention, something which makes people stand up and notice him, is when in a fit of rage he kills three rather odious men on the subway. While Joker as we know him doesn’t come until later on, this is the birth of him. Because this is when Arthur discovers the dirty secret of this society, the one which makes people notice him and in this case, actually like him.
As you can tell through me doing two lengthy paragraphs of analysis, I really do like this movie. Let’s face it, I didn’t try to go this deep with The Beach Bum, mostly because you’d probably only find rotten years old marijanua if you did that. It’s so easy to forget about that this was ever based on a comic book and if you swapped the name of Thomas Wayne, father of the famous Bruce who plays a pivtoal role in this movie, to anything else, you’d probably forget that this has anything to do about Batman as well. It doesn’t really need the Joker trappings if I’m honest, it stands up completely on its own as an analysis of a deteriorating mind given so many blows without anyone trying or particularly wanting to heal it. The film it reminded me the most of is Taxi Driver with the violent is so easily bred in very familiar settings. Of course the movie has caused a stir in doing this, some have accused it of glorifying mass shooters as the mental health issues Arthur has can easily be linked with some of the ones had by the people who committed those atrocities. In fairness to those claims, I think the movie invites that comparison and wants you to make it. But I think the movie is criticising the system that leads to Joker, rather than acting as if he’s a hero. Though then again, considering the idolization Joker gets, I can definitely see why that point of view is not going away.
What anchors the movie though and makes it truly brilliant and one of the best of the year is the performance of Joaquin Phoenix. My word. If he doesn’t get an Oscar nomination at the very least, something has gone deadly wrong. He plays both sides of the role to perfection. You are always on the edge near him, even when Arthur is somewhat likable and sympathetic you still wouldn’t want to go near him. On that, I think the movie there is judging the audience and accusing them of being part of the problem of how these people end up being isolated, but that’s analysis for another day. But when he truly turns into the Joker and starts the rampage that is the final act of the movie, he becomes terrifying. You geniunely don’t know what he is going to do next, you look away because you fear that he is going to just kill everyone. The big climax is at the chat show of Murray Franklin, a comedian that Arthur adores at the start of the movie. This is one of the most intense, gripping scenes I’ve seen all year. It’s all down to the unpredictably of Phoenix who is sublime. Robert De Niro, this movie really is trying to be the 21st Century Taxi Driver, is also excellent in this scene and the movie as a whole, but clap clap to Phoenix.
Of course the controversies are going to put people off and I think for many people, the raw way this movie deals with mental health could be very offputting. The movie is going to offend and I think it’s completely fair that people are worried that some are going to misconstrue the message of the movie. After all, this movie is trying to ape, and does so very successfully, Taxi Driver actually did inspire an attempted assassination on President Ronald Reagan. That’s definitely not the director Todd Phillips’ intention, even if he has been a nob in the promotion of this movie and has also been the definition of not helping the situation. But it can’t be ignored as I can see it, especially as the movie doesn’t seem to be that critical of the cult that develops around Joker in that final act. That said, the only bit I didn’t enjoy was some of the extended Arthur dancing by himself sequences as it felt like being artsy for artsy’s sake but I’m sure someone is going to give me an explanation of why they are important as soon as I post this.
Joker tries to be the modern day Taxi Driver and I think it succeeds at that. It’s an incredibly raw movie and one that is definitely going to get under people’s skin for both the right and wrong reasons. It is an incredible work because it packs a lot into its run time and doesn’t really bother playing the comic book game, it’s concentrating more on this dark tale of how society, oh there’s that word again, seems not to care about people until they start lashing out. Because of how controversial it is this movie is going to last a lot longer than many of the other movies that are released this year as this will probably be analysed to death in film studies class and unfortunately, be an icon for some of the dregs in society that frequent certain message boards. But if you ignore that, this is something special that needs to be watched.