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Joker Review

October 4, 2019 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Joker Joaquin Phoenix
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Joker Review  

Directed By: Todd Phillips
Written By: Todd Phillips and Scott Silver
Runtime: 121 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images

Joaquin Phoenix – Arthur Fleck/Joker
Frances Conroy – Penny Fleck
Robert De Niro – Murray Franklin
Zazie Beets – Sophie Dumond
Marc Maron – Gene Ufland
Shea Whigham – Detective Burke
Bill Camp – Detective Garrity
Brett Cullen – Thomas Wayne
Glenn Fleshler – Randall
Leigh Gill – Gary
Josh Pais – Josh Pais
Douglas Hodge – Alfred Pennyworth

Todd Phillips’ Joker is a bold, daring vision through the perspective of a psychologically disturbed individual, Arthur Fleck. In a performance that’s definitely one of the highlights of his career, Joaquin Phoenix portrays Arthur, an unsettled, unnerving individual who transforms from an aspiring comedian to a psychotic killer. The killer somewhat resembles one of the most famous, iconic villains of the DC Universe, The Joker, who is normally associated with Batman. However, Phillips largely eschews most semblances of the comic book universe and origins for this deconstructionist take on The Joker and Joker-like characters.

The story follows the mentally disturbed Arthur (Phoenix). He’s an aspiring comedian who struggles to get by as a street and party clown in Gotham City, circa 1981. At this time, Gotham is a city on the brink. It’s a society of moral decay on the verge of civil collapse–a diseased and suffering city. Arthur’s mental state appears symptomatic of the diseased Gotham City, as if the viral infection of Gotham has conspired to create a virus that’s even worse. The members of the privileged upper class, such as billionaire Thomas Wayne, speak as if they know how to solve all of Gotham’s problems and save the city, without exerting actual effort and care to know the people who are in a downward spiral.

Arthur attempts to see a local psychiatrist whose suggestions offer little assistance for what ails Arthur. He lives in a dilapidated apartment in a decaying building with his mother Penny (Conroy), who is obsessed in her belief that Thomas Wayne’s mayoral campaign will save them and Gotham City. A series of unfortunate events eventually put Arthur on a path to becoming a brutal serial killer.

As a movie, Joker is difficult to quantify. Essentially, Phillips has largely made a dark, brutal, gritty crime drama. Imagine a serial killer drama like Se7en, but from the actual perspective of the killer. Crime thrillers or dramas such as this rarely offer such an unflinching look from the killer’s perspective. Joker never allows the narrative to deviate from Arthur Fleck’s point-of-view, and it forces the audience to maintain that same view as well.

As a Joker story, the film shares very little in common with its comic roots, other than the setting of Gotham City and some token names here and there. As a comic book film, the best hypothetical comparison is if a writer gets permission to do a one-shot, elseworlds, alternate universe story for DC Vertigo and does a completely, brand-new original take.

A couple of scenes evoke imagery of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. There’s one scene that’s slightly reminiscent of The Dark Knight Returns, but this film really isn’t The Joker. It’s a completely, new reinvented take. Unfortunately, although what Phillips and Phoenix have created is interesting, it has very little in common with the iconic character. Much like how Jared Leto, as the Joker, came off like a grungy, yuppie rock star in love, this depiction is like a parody of the iconic comic book character. It’s where Joker comes up short.

Joker probably should have been its own psychological crime drama; but in this day and age, without the token comic book references, the film might have received a fraction of the hype.

Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is impressive. Phillips’ direction is unflinching as Arthur’s tenuous grip on reality continues to loosen. Phoenix’s physique is off-putting — a willowy, malnourished wiry body of loose limbs and bruises. It’s a scary, chilling performance and easily one of the best performances of Phoenix’s career. At one point, Arthur sneaks into a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and drives home the analogy that the Arthur Fleck Joker exists as a dark shadow to Chaplin’s own famous iconic performance as The Tramp.

The presentation comes off as if Phillips and Phoenix have externalized the dark thoughts within Fleck’s own psyche. Joker is a dark, unnerving look into the mind of someone who is psychologically disturbed. And because Phillips has basically externalized Fleck’s own dark mind throughout the narrative, the audience can never truly trust whether what they are seeing is real. Since the film stays within Fleck’s warped perspective, there’s a case of the unreliable narrator, where it’s made clear that not everything that happens is authentic.

For better or worse, Phillips made his own story here. For all intents and purposes, it’s the one he wanted to make, and Phoenix got to put his stamp on the character. However, it misses the more interesting aspects about the Joker, along with his connections to Batman.

Obviously, it’s tough to break new ground on Batman lore without being derivative. The Batman Arkham games did a fairly good job exploring the weird psychological kinship these character share. The Bruce Wayne aspects that are embedded within Joker are rather perfunctory and superficial. The material involving Bruce Wayne and the Wayne family is superficial and relatively pointless. As a character, Thomas Wayne only exemplifies how those in power can talk a big game but don’t really connect to the little people. Thomas Wayne’s persona is questionable considering Fleck’s warped point of view.

Joker is a dark, brutal, bleak and depressing film. It’s a bold, daring look at a character who is deranged and whose mental state continues on a downward spiral. There is nothing wrong with filmmakers or storytellers exploring these ideas, especially in fiction. Shouldn’t fiction be a place where storytellers can therapeutically express and explore their dark thoughts and fears? It seems that the reason Joker has so many people on edge is because this iteration of the character is not like the heightened hyper-reality of a comic book universe. In this film, Arthur Fleck comes across as a palatable character to the audience. To some degree, that frightens people. When David Lynch creates imagery that resembles nightmarish dreams, he creates cinematic imagery that is psychologically unsettling. If viewers do find Joker frightening and disturbing, then that means Phillips and Phoenix did an effective job.

Others have complained that Fleck is portrayed as too sympathetic and that the film glorifies his actions. Well, for one thing, the depiction of heinous acts is not the same thing as approval of said acts. Arthur Fleck is definitely the protagonist of this story, but he’s not a “hero.” In addition, movies, TV shows, books and more have portrayed violent, heinous and awful individuals in a sympathetic light for decades. That’s nothing new. This is not the first movie to show a story about a deranged serial killer from the killer’s perspective. Another good film to watch as a companion piece to Joker would be Lucky McKee’s 2002 film, May.

The movie in no way glorifies or approves of Arthur’s actions. And as tragic and depressing as Arthur’s story is, The Killing Joke is infinitely more depressing. In The Killing Joke, The Joker’s backstory is even sadder because he was more like an average Joe. He had a pregnant wife who loved him. He wasn’t some two-bit criminal narcissist. The Joker was a struggling comedian and a victim of circumstance. In that backstory, Batman is the real villain, and Batman is the one who is responsible for The Joker’s creation.

On that note, Batman also holds blame and responsibility for the death and mayhem The Joker brings to the city. Those are the fascinating aspects of The Joker mythos that still have not truly been explored in a live-action film. The point of The Killing Joke comparison is this: if the filmmakers actually wanted Arthur Fleck to be more sympathetic and tragic, they could have portrayed him that way. The film doesn’t go that route, so those complaints largely fall on deaf ears.

As a standalone film, Joker is very interesting, dark and unsettling, but there’s nothing wrong with the film’s existence as a single, one-off story. From that perspective, the film is fine and passable, but not a masterpiece nor a true exploration into the Joker character and mythos. It’s an exploration of a character who bears a slight resemblance to The Joker and exhibits some Joker-like qualities, but that’s about it.

The final score: review Good
The 411
The existence of Joker is fine. Phillips and Phoenix set out to make a dark, experimental character study, and that's exactly what they did. It's well-made and very well-acted, anchored by a really unnerving, impressive performance by Phoenix. However, the film really doesn't seem like it should have any relation at all to The Joker or the DC Comics. As an adaptation, it's rather underwhelming. The aspects from the comic hinder the story and narrative rather than help it. This is in no way a masterpiece or a definitive cinematic take on The Joker. That story is yet to be told. Joker depicts a dark, brutal world of moral and civil decay and how it gives birth to something far worse. As a comic adaptation, Phillips largely avoided making a cinematic version of The Killing Joke, which could have been a true masterpiece. A trippier look into the psychosis of a DC Comics super-villain or Joker would have looked at Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth, "Enjoy yourself out there, in the asylum. Just don't forget, if it ever gets too tough out there, there's always a place for you here." In that one line, Joker revealed that the ordinary world beyond Arkham was the place of insanity, and the world of Arkham Asylum was the opposite.