Age: 15, Grade: 10
School Name: Horace Mann School, Bronx, NY
Educator: Andrew Fippinger
Joker Film Review
DC’s newest film, Joker, is unlike anything else in the superhero genre. It’s gritty, vicious, graphic, and rivals The Dark Knight (2008) in both quality and innovation. Joker, directed by Todd Phillips, follows the mentally disturbed Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), whose dream is to be a stand-up comedian akin to his celebrity idol Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). The film is told from Arthur’s perspective, creating an “unreliable narrator” dynamic. The audience is never quite sure what is real, and what is a figment of Arthur’s imagination. In the beginning acts of the film, there are clear demarcations between what’s a dream of Arthur’s and what’s actually happening, but by the end of the film these lines become blurred and there is nothing to distinguish between reality and the false dreamland Arthur’s broken mind has formed for himself. This storytelling trick helps tell the story of Fleck’s descent from a semi-normal albeit deeply troubled and estranged man into a vicious and certifiably insane criminal. The screenwriters of the film, Todd Philips and Scott Silver, have done an impeccable job depicting this mental and moral collapse – making it disturbing and hard to watch whilst at the same time wickedly entertaining and enthralling.
The story coming from Arthur’s perspective coupled with the fact that this is an origin story for a character who’s origin has been shrouded in mystery for most, if not all, of the past 79 years helps this tale distinguish itself from everything else in the genre, and adds a new level of depth and profundity to the film. Arthur isn’t just insane to be insane. Unlike Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight (another performance which deserves unending praise) this incarnation of the famous comic-book villain isn’t a traditional villain – because there’s no hero in the story. The only similarities between this Joker and the other portrayals of the character are his makeup, his place of residence (Gotham City), and the mere fact that the Wayne family exists. There’s no Batman, no Commissioner Gordon, no big battle for the fate of Gotham. Instead, the movie chooses to focus on Arthur as a disavowed and beaten-down victim. He truly is a man who just had one bad day after another and finally snapped. Phoenix and Phillips manage to make this snowball effect neither boring nor rushed; each traumatic event in Arthur’s life, from getting fired, killing three businessmen on the subway, to learning his mother and her boyfriend abused him as a child serves a very specific and unique purpose in it of themselves, and all of them help to further the story at an exciting pace. Arthur suffers from a few key mental illnesses in Joker, making him not evil per se but rather fundamentally out of touch with the world around him, and severely lacking any of the normal inhibitions most people have.
The first illness we are introduced to is PBA, a condition in which people laugh uncontrollably at moments that shouldn’t garner laughter. We see this on display when Arthur is fired from his clown job after bringing a gun into a children’s hospital, and again when Arthur watches a stand-up comedian to learn the tricks of the trade. However, Arthur consistently laughs either in the middle of jokes or directly interrupting the comedian when he is telling a joke. Unnerving as it is on its own, what makes Arthur’s laugh truly bone-chilling is that the only way for him to stop laughing is to choke himself. The second affliction we witness Arthur’s face is his severe depression, which is on full display during his counseling session with his psychiatrist (Sharon Washington). He criticizes her by telling her that all she does is repeat herself every day and prescribed him meds which don’t work, and then he tells her that all he has are negative thoughts. This scene highlights two important character details for Arthur. First, it illustrates just how dire his mental situation is. Arthur is a deeply troubled individual who should be receiving extensive treatment, and this gets at the crux of the film. His last two mental illnesses, psychosis, and delusion are arguably the two most important in the film. Both move the plot forward in extremely shocking ways, and whilst I won’t go into them as they are spoilers, what I will say is that the twists in this film are handled with deft subtlety and brilliant timing.
As the story progresses we see Arthur lose himself in not only his madness but the madness of the people of Gotham. That mob mentality acts in a cyclical pattern, first as embers for Arthur’s fire and then as the roles are flipped – Arthur becomes the spark which ignites a revolution. When Arthur kills the three businessmen after they whale on him in the subway, it starts an anti-wealth movement and it lines up with Thomas Wayne’s (Brett Cullen) mayoral campaign – causing him to refer to the lower classes of Gotham as clowns and thus creating the very mob mentality which Arthur and his insanity feed upon. Arthur begins to look at himself not as a decrepit man hiding from the world, but as an accidental symbol – a symbol for those who cannot enact change themselves, those who are powerless against the corrupt and the criminal. Sound familiar? It’s the very same logic Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) uses in The Dark Knight to justify the Batman persona, only Bruce is a symbol on purpose, and in his case, the logic is flipped around. Whereas Batman referred to the lowest of the low as the criminals, here Arthur and the people of Gotham believe that it is the Waynes and their compatriots who are the true villains of the story. This ideology acts as the final catalyst for Arthur’s transformation into the iconic clown prince of crime.
As I mentioned before, Arthur’s main goal in this tale is to become a stand-up comedian and one day take the stage just like his idol: Murray Franklin. However, when Arthur does finally appear on The Murray Franklin Show, it isn’t as a respected comedian, but rather as a laughingstock. You see when Arthur attempts to do stand-up comedy it goes terribly wrong, and Murray acquires a tape of this disaster which he releases on national television. He then invites Arthur onto his show to make fun of him, but when Arthur appears, after all of the terrible events which have taken place thus far, it isn’t as Arthur Fleck. For all intents and purposes, Arthur Fleck is dead, and now the Joker is all that’s left. This absolute conversion is depicted perfectly in what’s one of the most iconic lines in the film. When Murray and his assistant come to check on Arthur in the waiting room, Arthur asks them if they could introduce him as Joker, symbolizing his complete abject departure from anything resembling humanity. The sequence to follow is one of the greatest denouements in film history, and it proves just how poetically beautiful chaos and anarchy can be portrayed. That is not at all an endorsement of the actions of the people of Gotham or Arthur Fleck, but Todd Philips should be commended for his masterful depiction of this cultural revolution.
The behind-the-scenes team aren’t the only ones who deserve recognition. Joaquin Phoenix puts on one of the greatest acting performances in history during Joker, and if not for his stellar performance Joker wouldn’t have been nearly the film it turned out to be. There are some movies, like Ad Astra (2019) where it’s bad to have an actor be in every single scene. Sometimes the character can become worn out, or it just feels like the story and quality of the film suffered in order for a certain celebrity to make a few extra bucks. In Joker, Joaquin Phoenix has the exact opposite impact. Yes he’s in every single scene, but it enables the audience to truly become connected with Arthur as a character, and because Phoenix does such a great job fully committing to the role there’s never a moment when I wished he wasn’t on screen. This isn’t the first time fans have witnessed a near-perfect portrayal of The Joker, and some would argue that Heath Ledger’s take on the iconic villain in The Dark Knight is as good as it gets. Many took to social media after Joker’s release, comparing Phoenix to Ledger, and although both performances are about the same character, there’s really no way to compare the two. Ledger’s Joker is essentially a domestic terrorist – he’s a man who “just wants to watch the world burn” (as Michael Caine so eloquently puts it). We never see the human side of The Joker in The Dark Knight, we only know him as this unstoppable force of chaos and anarchy. In Joker, the screenwriters took a drastically different approach. They wanted to use The Joker as a catalyst for a story about mental depression and our society’s mistreatment of individuals suffering from things we don’t fully comprehend, so they chose to focus on the transformation, rather than the villain. The two performances are polar opposites, and yet they’re equally compelling and gripping. Joaquin Phoenix brings to life a character who serves to undermine the very fabric of our society, and it’s hard to imagine if anyone else could do it in such a captivating and riveting fashion.
Many charges have been levied at Joker by various reviewers, accusing it of being a call to violence against the upper class, a celebration of crime, etc. What these statements lack is any kind of logic or an unbiased author behind them, as the true purpose of Joker is to tell the story of a man’s descent into madness as well as highlight an important issue in our society which has gone mostly unnoticed for the past decade – the mistreatment of the mentally disturbed. Overall, I enjoyed every second of Joker, and although it’s definitely not for the faint-of-heart (though I think that works to this film’s benefit) it is truly one of the greatest films of the decade, filled with impeccable performances, gorgeous cinematography, and a truly powerful story. Joker is an experience I will remember for years to come, and it is a film that I’ll be watching over and over again. Whether you see it in theatres or not, as long as you can handle some gravitas it’s a film absolutely worth seeing.