Joker (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Todd Phillips’ “Joker” stares directly into the dark well of a man’s misery and asks the viewers to endure a series of highly uncomfortable, humiliating, and desperate situations. Although there are sudden, gruesome violence and plenty of blame to go around—government corruption, systems in place designed to keep the poor longing and powerless while the rich remain thriving and in charge, the way we choose to treat our neighbors—it trusts the audience to find empathy and compassion toward a person whose life is not without laughter but utterly, cripplingly devoid of joy. It is most appropriate that we meet Arthur Fleck, a clown by day and an aspiring standup comedian at night, from behind as he faces a mirror. Because in order to understand him, even appreciate him, we are required to take a look at ourselves.

The titular character may have comic book origins, but the film is a character study first and foremost. Each passing scene is a nudge toward inevitable villainy, but Arthur is never reduced to a cartoon. The work employs a hammer to showcase mental illness but it is necessary, in a way, because the character is larger than life. His life circumstances, however, are grounded in reality: he does not have a rewarding job, he is not respected by his peers (in fact, he is ridiculed or mocked), he has no friends, he is told he is not funny enough to be a comedian, and even strangers have a tendency to pick on him because he appears to be an easy target. People see him but not in ways he would like to be seen. Maybe that is worse than being invisible.

I felt deep sadness toward this character and Joaquin Phoenix does a superlative job in making us identify the person behind the supervillain name and clown make-up. Even when the camera is showing only his back, we can already feel the weight of Arthur’s depression, his frustration from being rejected again and again, and eventually his rage toward a society in which no one really gives a damn—it is in his posture, the movement of his back muscles, the way he breathes.

When the camera focuses on Arthur’s face, it is like reading an engaging novel. Here is a man craving to find meaning, to be regarded by somebody else as important—or relevant at the very least, to be wanted for his ordinariness, to be enough. It is a consummate performance and it is not just because of Phoenix’ skeletal frame or creepy laugh: Experiencing Arthur’s day-to-day existence is like watching a car wreck in slow motion. At one point we must wonder how much more can a person take. It is the kind of performance you don’t want to blink from because doing so might lead to missing a very telling information. Phoenix does not waste a moment.

It is appropriate that co-writer Phillips and Scott Silver take inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s pictures, “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” Images like the subject playing with a gun and aspiring to be shown on television are obvious—and I am not interested in that. I am interested, however, in the mixture of tone and feeling of the two classics, the former a psychological drama with thriller elements and the latter a satirical dark comedy. What results in “Joker” is a morbid sense of humor, an anti-joke, and an effective social commentary about personal and societal responsibility. I wager the work will stand the test of time.

5 replies »

  1. i’m glad you liked it. I will tell you now what I thought was annoying was the way they vilified Thomas Wayne, and some seemed to think his murder was justified. The Wayne’s have always been generous and helped Gotham, and I understand it’s good to have fresh interpretations, but by this interpretation then Batman would be the villain and Joker the hero; while I do agree with your thoughts on the film, Arthur and this Joker persona are in no way a hero. Many people go through some of the difficulties and emotions Arthur did, but murder is not the answer (Obviously you know this) but I am pointing it out as some viewers seem to think Arthur was justified; killing Murray definitely was overboard…

    Murray was having fun roasting him, but he didn’t seem to be hateful, and you would think an aspiring comedian who bombed would expect to get roasted, and even laugh at themselves; that’s the attitude you have to take, especially in show business. Not murder them. lol.

    But with that in mind, the last act was brilliant; especially the entire sequence on the Murray Show; so much to take in. I loved the way after he shot Murray and everyone was scrambling around, Joker gets up and randomly dances for like 1-2 seconds, and then stops and carries on. I’m not sure why, but that choice Phillips or Phoenix made there was spot-on. the dance sequence on the stair case was memorable; will be on cinema montages 50 years from now. I wish it was 20-30 seconds longer…

    I didn’t like the scene where he killed Randle. I have went online and watched the final act like 3 times since I saw it in theatres, but i skip the murdering of Randle; was so gruesome, and felt authentic, in which you know i love in movies, but I didn’t like that scene…

    Many viewers are speculating about the interpretation of the movie, and whether the entire story is a delusion narrated by Arthur to the Arkham counselor, but I think everything happened, and the only delusion was the one about him and Sophie, which was a brilliant twist, and though that twist has been done to death over the last couple decades, they executed it perfectly here so we didn’t suspect it.

    I’m glad you finally got to see it, and liked it. Many are saying this is film of the year, and some have even said film of the “decade”. Which gives me the idea, when you do your top 10 for 2019, you should also do a top 10 of the decade. :)

    • To your first point: I think that since the story is told through Arthur’s perspective, it is appropriate that Thomas Wayne be shown under that light. The whole hero/villain scenario was not relevant to me because the project is supposed to be a character study of a person who is clearly mentally ill.

      As for Murray making fun of Arthur on television, I understand that there is no malicious intent. At the same time, that’s the not the point. Since the story is told from Arthur’s perspective, and keeping in mind his mental illness, to Arthur it is not a joke but an affront to who he is as a person who is already kicked down over and over again. Is the killing justified? No. Is the killing justified in Arthur’s mind? Yes.

      Regarding Randall’s murder, I appreciated that it made the audience uncomfortable. It was not glorified; it was made to look ugly, messy, and fucked up. It makes cartoonish violence irresponsible, especially within the film’s context.

      This movie will likely be included in my Favorites of 2019 list. That depends whether the movies I’ll watch in the next 2-3 months will be just as strong or stronger. But it has a good chance. We’ll see!

      • yeah, even though we’re coming from different perspectives, i agree w/ everything you said. I’m sure this movie will make your list. I highly doubt many other releases this year will compare.

  2. Oh yeah, I think King of Comedy was actually the early 80’s, like 82 or 83. I loved that movie. I think it’s my favorite Scorsese film, and that’s saying a lot. :)

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