And here… we… go.
No cinematic villain has ever come close to touching Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in 2008’s “The Dark Knight.” So why risk blemishing perfection? After all, we suffered through Jared Leto’s soulless attempt in “Suicide Squad.”
Now the Joker is once again gracing the big screen, and this time Joaquin Phoenix is the one putting on the smile. Once again, the question was raised: does the movie need to be made?
It turns out that answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no.
From its very inception, “Joker” was engulfed in a series of dialogues. Initially it was debating the film’s existence. Then, after taking home the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, the discussion transitioned to the film’s potential come awards season. Amidst all of this, was the irrational fear the film, which centers around a disturbed, mentally ill murderer, would inspire violence from like-minded individuals in the real world.
Oh, and if all that wasn’t enough “Joker” discussion for you, director Todd Phillips added another talking point after claiming comedy is ruined because “woke culture” made “all the funny guys” afraid to offend people. But that’s a whole other story.
“Joker” tells the story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) and his descent into madness. Broken and forgotten by the unforgiving darkness of Gotham City, Arthur barely makes end’s meet as a for-hire clown, advertising for stores and visiting local children’s hospitals. Day in and day out Arthur is berated by his coworkers, ignored by the neighbor he dreams of, and beaten by poor and wealthy strangers alike. All he has is his ailing mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), whom he lives with and nurses.
Arthur suffers from a number of disorders, but most noticeably is his uncontrollable laughter, something later revealed to be an aftereffect of the childhood abuse he suffered. These fits of cackling often lead to trouble for Arthur, and one night more so than the others. Three white collar men hassle him on an empty subway because of his laughter and begin to beat him, until Arthur finally retaliates and murders the men. And that’s when it all begins.
For years it seems that Arthur was on the brink of snapping, walking a fine line between strangeness and all-out insanity. But once he crosses that line, he fully becomes Joker. Class warfare erupts throughout Gotham, with the poor seeing the slayings of three wealthy men as a sign to fight back, and they take to the streets donning clown masks and face paint in tribute to their hero.
During his descent into madness, Arthur learns the truth about his childhood, and if he hadn’t already snapped, the reveal certainly pushes him past the point of no return. There is no more Arthur, just Joker – but really, Joker was there all along.
Controversy aside, there’s nothing that can be taken away from Phoenix’s portrayal of the most iconic comic book villain of all time. While he doesn’t dethrone Ledger as the greatest Joker, he comes close, with a truly disturbing, committed performance. In typical Phoenix fashion, he has completely transformed his body, emaciating himself to create a truly shocking appearance.
Throughout the film as Phoenix transitions between Arthur and Joker, taking on and off his makeup, a small portion of white paint remains smudged on his neck. As minor as it may seem, it’s the perfect example of how there was never any difference between the two – even if it’s Arthur onscreen, Joker is there lurking, biding his time, because Arthur has always been the heinous monster inside.
While the Joker may be ever present, the difference is astounding once Arthur fully embraces his transformation. Where Arthur hobbled, Joker glides. Twice during the early portions of the film, Arthur is seen painfully struggles to make his way up a set of stairs. Once the weight has been lifted and his true self is unleashed, Joker dances his way down the stairs full of life. The same can be said about the parallels between the early scenes of Arthur longingly looking out a bus window versus Joker’s gleeful staring.
However, the film certainly has its issues. When it was initially announced, the biggest question was why? What was the purpose of another Joker film disconnected from the rest of the universe DC was attempting to create. After its release, the reasoning still remains unknown.
There’s no question the media’s response to the film was an unwarranted overreaction. “Joker” will not incite violence more so than any other film will. Still, it’s an extremely dark and twisted work of cinema. The biggest issue with it is Phillips’ attempt to present Arthur as a character deserving of sympathy, as if he’s some sort of anti-hero. After repeatedly seeing him abused by the people of Gotham and even those he cares for, it seems as if Phillips hopes audiences will see Arthur as the true victim. It’s a sign of a truly great film when audiences are presented with characters whose actions are objectively wrong, but are still able to connect with them and partially justify those actions. “Joker” is not one of those films.
“Joker” is an unsettling and extremely heavy film, and at times it verges on being unenjoyable, but there are still enough elements to impress – mainly in Phoenix’s broken performance.
Star Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.