Joker (2019)
Joker (2019)

Genre: Crime Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 1 min.

Release Date: October 4th, 2019 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Todd Phillips Actors: Joaquin Phoenix, Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Glenn Fleshler, Leigh Gill

 


 

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ealth commissioner Edward O’Rourke declares a state of emergency (likely around the year 1981, though the setting is obviously fictional) concerning the garbage piling up on the streets of Gotham City, thanks to a strike by trash collectors. And with the overflow of litter comes super-rats, which are sure to further plague the people on the bottom, who must traverse these infested, decaying avenues. It’s a bleak setup for the arrival of a fitting antagonist; when the disconnect between the ultra wealthy and the utterly destitute grows large enough, the city will burn – and a macabre symbol of resistance and chaos will rise.

In the context of a superhero flick, this premise sounds commonplace. But “Joker” is no ordinary superhero flick. In fact, it’s the complete opposite of traditional action-comedies in the vein of Marvel’s seemingly one-a-month output. It may be the DC universe, but it’s been stripped of all glamor, adventure, and straightforward humor; it’s “Taxi Driver” (not just due to Robert De Niro’s casting) crossed with “The Silence of the Lambs” (some of the cinematography resembles horror films, and the graphic violence is undoubtedly horrifying), highlighting the ugliness and the sorrow of tough times fueled by anxiety and governmental abandonment. All of the superheroism has been scrubbed out, leaving in its place resentment, neglect, and anger (and rebellion along the lines of “A Clockwork Orange”).

Arthur “Happy” Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is the product of this unsightliness, having endured years of abuse at the hands of all sorts of people, now recently released from a mental hospital with little supervision save for an uncaring social worker checkup and seven different prescriptions. Like Peter Lorre’s Beckert from “M,” Fleck toys with his face as if it were a malleable mask, experimenting with how his appearance fails to reflect what lies underneath. Not only does he contend with a number of mental illnesses, filling him with permeating, morbid thoughts, but he also suffers from a rare neurological disorder that causes him to burst into fits of uncontrollable laughter, often through tears of misery. It doesn’t help that he has no friends, he lives alone with his mother (serving as her caretaker), and his peers routinely regard him with discomfort. “People think you’re weird.”

So, of course, a fellow clown from Fleck’s work gives him a gun and bullets. Arthur may have the initial intentions of a Patch Adams, but with all the disappointments and the contempt that surround him, it’s not long before he wanders down the path of vigilantism. And this is a very unusual side of vigilantism – when someone dangerous and far less than a righteous antihero opts to be judge, jury, and executioner. The film builds a considerable amount of tension through continuous, aberrant behavior, becoming darker and darker as the story progresses. If it was designed primarily to emphasize and examine mental illnesses and the way that society responds to them, “Joker” would be a profound, penetrating picture. But the protracted episodes of delusional psychosis chiefly work to craft an origins tale for Batman’s archenemy; the repetitive grotesqueries aren’t given a context beyond how a severely mistreated, emotionally fraught person might transform into an eccentric serial killer – and then a riot-inducing icon of disgruntlement.

Nevertheless, this is surely the most realistic depiction of a supervillain becoming a supervillain thus far, coping with specific derangements, constant belittlement and psychological torment, and tragic physical abuse. The looming, literal class warfare is a backdrop for Arthur’s alienation and loss of identity, leading to violent retaliation, some of which is so shrouded in breaks from reality that it’s difficult to sort out what is actually happening and what is transpiring only in his mind. But Phoenix gives 200% to this role, supplying fascinating explanations for the Joker’s jester makeup, his murderous motives, and his relationship to Bruce Wayne – all formerly cryptic bits of a legendary mythology.

Phoenix is clearly thoroughly invested in his performance, even when many of his more unsympathetic, highly disturbing actions and mannerisms make the film hard to watch. But with the peripheral connection to Batman, audiences will likely give lots of leeway to the distressing representation of psychological disorders and Fleck’s moral bankruptcy. Yet “Joker’s” boldness and originality, particularly in the realm of comic book character adaptations, doesn’t always translate into entertainment value. Apart from Phoenix’s unforgettable turn, the film is unrelentingly unsettling.

– Mike Massie

  • 4/10