Director: Todd Phillips
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Frances Conroy, Robert DeNiro
Based on: characters by DC
Genre: Psychological thriller
Released: October 4, 2019, by Warner Bros
Running time: 122 mins (2 hours, 2 minutes)
Rated: 15 (UK) R (USA)
Failed stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck encounters a group of criminals dressed up as clowns wandering on the streets of Gotham City. Isolated by his society, Fleck slowly descends into madness and transforms into a criminal mastermind known as The Joker.
I’m going to let you lovely people in on a little secret: when this movie was first announced, I thought it was a terrible idea. I thought to myself ‘how can you make a movie that focuses solely on one of the most irredeemable and evil comic book villains there is?‘ And lo and behold, we now have a movie that does that but also does it exceptionally well. I will admit that those five-star reviews and calls for Oscar nominations did make me a little nervous, but now that I have seen Joker, I can see why those critics were so impressed.
As the movie’s title states, this is an origin story for the Joker. No, not an unrelated character who decides to call himself Joker, but the Joker from the Batman comics. However, this isn’t Jack Nicholson’s Jack Napier or Heath Ledger’s unknown criminal with two conflicting backstories, but this is an original origin story that takes inspiration from numerous pieces of Batman media. Our main character is Arthur Fleck, a party clown and aspiring stand-up comedian who lives in a run-down apartment with his mother in 1981 Gotham City. He also suffers from numerous mental illnesses, including psychosis and one that causes inappropriate laughter, and has been in and out of therapy for a long time. Off the bat, things have started bad, but they only get worse from here. If you didn’t like other DC movies for being “too dark”, you probably aren’t going to have a better time with this one because it is not cheery at all.
The thing that I loved the most about the movie’s story is that you can enjoy it without being extremely well-versed in Batman lore, but when you are, you can see where the writers got their inspiration from. A lot of Arthur’s story can be seen in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, but not all of it because this isn’t the typical “unnamed married man with a baby on the way who falls into acid after running away from Batman” story because there’s no Batman in this movie. There are also two very clear parallels to Taxi Driver (which I have seen) and The King of Comedy (which I have not seen), and although I can’t comment on the latter, taking inspiration from the former makes total sense for this movie because both focus on mentally ill loners who reach their breaking points. One source that I haven’t seen anybody mention so far – basically because it’s a huge spoiler – is Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. I don’t really like that book anymore, but during a pivotal scene in the climax of the movie, a particular scene is pretty much almost lifted straight from the book. If you’ve read TDKR, you will know exactly which scene I mean, and I think it’s interesting that the writer’s used that considering that this is an origin story and TDKR is pretty much the end of the Joker.
There isn’t a lot of action in this movie but that doesn’t bother me at all because the movie doesn’t feel like it drags at any point. Sure, maybe a couple of shots linger for a little too long here and there, but to me, that doesn’t really matter because this isn’t a superhero movie, it’s a psychological thriller. It may feature characters from superhero comics, but there are no superheroes here so there’s no need for the plot to move at a lightning-fast pace.
For me personally, the characterisation of Joker that the writers chose to take, as well as Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, are the two main driving forces of this movie. This movie would not have worked if we had either a goofy cartoon-esque Joker who commits petty crimes for a laugh or the Joker of the more extreme comics who indiscriminately kills anyone just for the fun of it. Here we have a Joker who although isn’t necessarily one that the audience can identify with and feel sympathy for as a person (there will be people out there who will, but I personally don’t because the actions he chooses to carry out are so awful), we can feel sympathy for the situation that he’s in. We have a Joker who is a tremendous amount of emotional pain and pretty much nobody cares, including his own therapist who seems to just be there to get her paycheck and clock out for the day. One change to his characterisation that I thought was a very nice touch is that his laughter is actually the result of a mental illness or possible brain injury and at times it sounds like the poor guy is physical pain just doing it and it’s a little chilling. I also appreciate that instead of being the indiscriminate killer from the comics that we’re all familiar with, in this movie Arthur only really kills people who he feels truly deserve it. And as much as it pains me to say it, he’s kind of right because every person (except one who I won’t say) that he deliberately causes harm to are complete scumbags. Maybe not to the point of being murdered, but they do all deserve their comeuppance.
My favourite thing about both Arthur’s characterisation and Phoenix’s performance is how starkly different his personality is once he truly becomes Joker. While Arthur is very downtrodden, quiet, painfully nervous, and looks like he just wants to run and hide, Joker is extremely charismatic, confident, snarky, and even a little camp in his mannerisms. It’s almost like a parallel to Batman/Bruce Wayne, where Batman is the true self and Bruce Wayne is the mask. Arthur is kind of a shell that needed to be broken in order for Joker to emerge, and once that anxious shell has been broken, Joker can’t be put inside of it. Just give Joaquin Phoenix is damn Oscar already, he deserves it.
If I had to pick one thing that kept this movie from getting a full five-star rating from me, it’s the way the writers chose to portray Thomas Wayne. Yes, he’s alive in this movie. In the comics, and pretty much every other Batman adaptation, Thomas Wayne is characterised as being a somewhat saintly figure who wanted to change Gotham City for the better by setting up his own organisations with his wife to help fund healthcare and housing for people living in poverty. Does he do that in this movie? Heck no, he doesn’t. This movie’s version of Thomas Wayne is pretty selfish and appears to be running for mayor for his own selfish reasons, and also buys into the whole “anti-rich sentiment” thing, which is garbage. The protestors in the riot scene even have signs that call him a fascist. While this does mirror real life as there are billionaires and businessmen out there who are like that, it feels strange to have that characterisation given to Thomas Wayne of all people. Maybe I’m being a little too harsh, but that just didn’t really sit right with me.
I know that a lot of people will disagree with me on this, and they are perfectly in their right to, but I feel like this movie does have something to say that goes beyond telling an origin story for the Joker. To me, this movie makes a pretty bold statement on the way that society – particularly the upper classes – treats people that it sees as lesser, such as people who live in poverty, and people who live with mental illnesses. Arthur is explicitly shown to live with psychosis and the way that it affects his life is pretty devastating, as are the conditions that he lives in. His mother’s apartment building is pretty much falling apart, her former employer ignores her letters asking for help because he thinks she’s “crazy”, and it’s very much stated that Arthur’s state-funded therapist just doesn’t care about what he has to say. Even if the movie isn’t sympathetic to Arthur as a person, it is definitely sympathetic to his situation, which unfortunately still happens to this day. The fact that the movie is set in the early 1980s doesn’t really affect the mirror that it holds up to the current world. The reflection is still too real for a lot of people. Maybe I’m looking too much into this, but it’s a habit of mine. If you disagree with me, you can always tell me what you think instead.
While I don’t think this is the perfect comic book movie, I do think it is one of the best that has been released recently. I love darker comic book media, and this is as dark as it gets so I can safely say that I loved this movie. Yeah, I had a couple of issues here and there, but not huge enough to really affect how much I enjoyed it. Will I go to see it at the cinema again? Heck yes, I definitely would, I just need to have the money to do it before it’s gone. Oh, and one piece of advice to those of you reading this review who have children: do not take your kids to see this movie. It’s an R rated movie for a good reason.
trigger warnings: blood, mental illness (psychosis), mentions of child abuse, references to suicide, death of a parent, murder, ableism (use of m****t), maybe don’t watch this if you’re scared of clowns i guess