At this point, what HASN’T been said about Todd Phillips’ controversial attempt at an orgin story for comic book’s greatest villain? Skewing close to what Taxi Driver would be like if Travis Bickle had slapped on grease paint instead of shaving a mohawk into his scalp and stayed on target for his orginal mission instead of plan B-ing himself towards Harvey Keitel’s brothel, Joker is something of a breathtaking experience, in turns deeply sad, horribly awkward, legitimately terrifying and electrifying thrilling (much like the character himself).
Gotham City: 1981, is quite possibly the worst possible place for someone like Arthur Fleck to exist – if you can even call it existing. A mental health red flag, Arthur – burdened with a condition that leads to uncontrollable laughter during times of stress – is on seven different kinds of medication, takes care of his infirmed mother and scrapes a meagre living together as a rent-a-clown. His surroundings are almost Darwinably primal, as a garbage strike has left the city virtually drowning in it’s own filth and thugs openly deal out beatings just to pass the time. While trying to survive in a city that makes the one in Se7en seem like Milton fucking Keynes, Fleck also has designs on becoming a stand-up comedian and dreams of appearing on a late night talk show hosted by Robert De Niro’s smug Murray Franklin. As the Gotham elite, such as Thomas Wayne, constantly appear on TV to impotently assure people that better days are ahead, Fleck’s very identity starts to come apart due to a series of life deconstructing knock out blows which eventually result in an act of brutal violence. As public unrest grows and the angry poor rally around Fleck’s deeds as some sort of political statement, Arthur finally finds a sense of purpose in this new persona he’s found. Can there possibly be any hope of salvation in the startling news that comes to light concerning his parentage, or is Arthur destined to be reborn from beneath his white face paint and wide red smile to punish Gotham for everything it is?
For those who were impressed at the level of realism The Dark Knight bestowed upon the caped crusader rest assured that Joker makes Christopher Nolan’s trilogy look like the Adam West TV show in comparison with nary a hint of Joker gas, a squirty acid flower or a lethal electric hand buzzer to be seen.
Joaquin Phoenix is truly devastating, emaciated and sporting quite possibly cinema’s most disturbing ribcage (take that, Christian Bale in The Machinist), his sorrow and emptiness emanates out from his very core, his slow burning fuse growing ever shorter with every indignity. You can’t condone what he does – even in self defence – but you can’t help but emphasize with this monster in waiting.
What helps is the violence, and by that I mean that when it happens is brutal, shocking and ugly with real world ramifications which stands in stark contrast to some of the complaints flying around the ether.
Ah yes, the complaints… When addressing the grumbles about DC not being PC it’s exceadingly important to remember that Joker is a VILLAIN origin story and that things are SUPPOSED to be twisted and that some of the criticism could easily be also leveled at any movie where are charismatic lead performs acts of brutality in order to transform into someone else be it the aforementioned Taxi Driver, Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange
or even Scarface or The Godfather.
It’s supposed to be a challenging and uncomfortable, with refreshingly unsafe views about a failing mental health system and the victims it creates.
In a slightly less important point, some of the comics faithful may also recoil at the willful retooling of Detective Comics history but the changes are utterly justified in telling such a haunting tale that sticks with you long after the film has ended.
“You wouldn’t get it.” shyly smirks Arthur at the climatic question as to what exactly is so funny, a loaded answer that could quite easily be aimed at panicked detractors claiming that the movie could singlehandedly bring down western civilisation in a single opening weekend but a ballsy script and a towering central performance totally buries Jared Leto’s mugging juggalo and comfortably squares up to Heath Ledger’s icon take on the character.
In a year where a comic book movie not only became the highest grossing film of all time while wrapping up 11 years of long form experimental storytelling, the fact that we can also have a movie from the same genre that is so different in virtually every way shows that the comic book movies is STILL evolving in exciting and unexpected ways.
And that my friends, is no joke.