“What do you get when you cross a mentally-ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?… You get what you f****n deserve!”
With this final one-liner before committing his most outrageous act yet, Arthur Fleck neatly sums up the journey the film has taken us on. It points directly to the core story of 2019’s Joker: how an unstable and damaged man can be isolated and crushed by an apathetic society until he turns into something truly unbridled and threatening. Subtlety, it seems, is not the film’s strong suit, with the opening minutes having the protagonist literally smashed in the face with a sign and subsequently beaten up.
Although perhaps the script is sometimes a bit obvious in its themes and social commentary, Joker is really all about the execution. Going into this film, we all know more or less what to expect. The comic-book villain is so infamous that the overall trajectory of his origin story seems inevitable. Yet, this deep character study manages to fully realize its dark, gritty tale with expert film-making that makes it a compelling and believable narrative. Director Todd Phillips, best known for comedies like the Hangover trilogy, surprises many with this showcase of his diversity in this dark and provocative achievement.
The cinematography and colour palette are simply beautiful and encapsulate the grimy mood of the city. Speaking of, the city of Gotham itself is like a character in this film – a raw and violent breeding ground for the Joker’s manifestation.
Further, Icelandic composer Hilder Guðnadóttir’s haunting and visceral soundtrack elevates all other elements. Interestingly, it was revealed that this soundtrack was actually completed before-hand and was in fact played during shooting to set the mood on the set. It was that integral to the production.
Yet, more than anything else, this entire movie hinges on the efforts of one man. Joaquin Phoenix appears to be a shoo-in for the Oscars this year, with a scintillating performance that is equally captivating and disturbing. It is difficult to imagine any other actor today capable of playing this version of the Joker. Phoenix perfectly manages his gradual spiral into madness and the transformation it entails. His uncontrollable laughter as a result of a medical condition is an original and refreshing take on the iconic Joker laugh. It adds to the damaged, awkward persona and carries an eerie tone which gets under your skin. Phoenix’s dramatic weight loss is just another facet of this dedicated portrayal. His gaunt, sickly face and unnervingly frail physique are appropriately distressing. The depth of emotions shown even solely through his eyes in the opening scene is simply mesmerising. He completely captures the essence of a character who is tragic above all else.
There is an additional level of intrigue throughout the story due to the complication of an unreliable narrator. The entire film is told in the first-person narrative, through the eyes of Arthur. This makes all the scenes and events unfolding tainted and biased – subject to the delusions and fantasies of a psychologically-damaged individual. This is strikingly revealed in the tense scene in Arthur’s girlfriends apartment when we realise that their entire relationship had played out in his head. The falsehood of what we see through Arthur’s eyes sheds new light on his own confusion and troubled nature while also explaining how unsettling he might appear to the world around him.
The illusion doesn’t just end there though. Upon revisiting the film, you could interpret so much of the movie as fantasies and hallucinations, all just figments of Arthur’s imagination. Most significantly, this places doubt on the entire revolution of mobs in clown masks inspired by Arthur’s actions. This genuinely could have been the fanciful vision of a subdued man just yearning to be recognised and accepted. Ultimately, this uncertainty pays tribute to the Joker’s infamous multiple-choice origin. Part of the sinister aura of the character has always been not knowing where he has come from. By leaving so much room for doubt about which scenes were real or fantasy, the film allows us to interpret the details and his story as we please.
The success and impact of Joker is already undeniable. It has enjoyed much critical acclaim and looks to be reaching MCU-level box-office success to boot. It cannot be underestimated how significant this commercial + critical success is in the modern age of massive blockbusters. Every single major studio today seems to be in a scramble to put their biggest characters together in grand, ensemble casts with formulaic productions in order to reach these commercial heights. In contrast, Joker was a bold move by Warner Bros to ‘resign’ such an iconic character to a more modest, character-focused effort. Hence it is a triumph for more original, independent filmmaking – particularly in the comic-book genre. This bodes well that audiences are receptive to darker and more daring takes on their favorite characters, reimagining comic-book stories for the future. Once again, the Joker gets the last laugh – or at least the loudest.
Image from The Mary Sue