Receiving the lions share of buzz and premeptive Oscar nods, this fall's hottest film has busted into theaters with record breaking numbers. In it's wake, it has left disgruntled media memebers clamoring the shortcomings of society, fearful we would use this movie as the last needed bit of inspiration to blow up the theater in which they are sitting.
Following the life of Arthur Fleck, Joker is an in-depth character study on how the Clown Prince of Crime came to be, or what could possibly make someone break in such a drastic and extreme way. Unlike the vats of acid in the older iterations, Joaquin Phoenix takes a gritty and honest approach, incorporating mental deficiencies with real world issues to help create a semi-relatable origin story.
In this way, the film immediately distances itself from Heath Ledger's Joker because Ledger existed as a by-product of Batman's theatrical hero. Phoenix succeeds in creating what Heath Ledger never needed to: a world of his own.
Joker never seemed to be dealing directly in political issues, but rather had them unnecessarily thrust upon the movie (yes there are some politcal themes but thats not the movie's point).
If you have not yet seen it, I highly encourage it. If you have, read on.
*SPOILER ALERT: SPOILERS AHEAD*
When it was first announced a little over two years ago that Joaquin Phoenix would be bringing to life a character that, for much of my life I had "idolized" in Heath Ledger, I was certain that he would ruin it. Then I started to see the ads and promos for it and I wasn't so certain.
One thing leads to another and the press gets their hands on this movie, and I realized it was never going to be Phoenix who ruined this for me, but movie critics who have only worked harder and harder to make this movie a mass murder.
It's funny I say idolize when it comes to a character who played games of death with an entire city in The Dark Knight, but such is the basis for the fear of the mass media: the celebration of a character so dark and corrupted by hate.
Which just goes as credit to the personable and moving character Phoenix brings to life on screen.
The truth about what this film is falls more along the lines of Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon A Time in Hollywood": a snap shot of a point in time. It is not a V for Vendetta anti-establishment flick that I felt it was made out to be.
For much of the movie - both times - I sat without looking for a real deep underlying plot, instead opting to react and enjoy the world that Todd Phillips had built around Phoenix. Because enough people have already broken down the script for me.
This movie is at its strongest when it is creating moving shots of Phoenix searching for, as he called it, "something real".
Which is exactly what this movie is: window dressing for a perfomance of a life time.
A nostalgia laden set, the 1980's appeal of the designs, coupled with beautiful cinematography and a perfect soundtrack make the overall feel, the experience of this movie wonderful to enjoy, albeit very uneasy at times.
That, and the fact that CGI use was at more of a minimum throughout, make it a welcome change of pace in the comic book movie genre.
The main object of this film's script from start to finish is the life of Arthur Fleck, the once committed mental patient, who lives with his invalid mother while trying to, "just be happy".
As we exist in the world with Arthur, we are able to sit back and experience more than just his life, but the outside influences of his world that make him such a poigant character.
The abuses as a child, the disallusion of his mother, his job as a clown getting beaten in the street, the laughing disorder that forces him to laugh at the worst possible times. And then there are the citizens of Gotham in disarray, the political turmoil rising in the streets, a plotline that feels more carelessly tossed into the script than intentionally interwoven.
Joaquin Phoeniz did something in this Joker that has not come before him: he allowed Joker to just exist naturally. He literally had no plan to follow, and with this Joker I could truly believe it. With Phoenix, we got an accidental Joker who never truly wanted to run a criminal empire or even watch the world burn, but rather he wanted to just be noticed.
The nostalgia of hits like Sinatra simply call back in a lot of ways to the high points of late night, and old Sinatra television performances much like the feel of the Murray show.
We've all seen the dancing scene on the stairs as we see Arthur assume Joker fully for the first time. Kick out is too perfect.
But as we find out in the movie, words hurt.
In the most obvious politcal moment of the movie for me, Arthur stops talk show host Murray Franklin before he is set to take the stage to let him know that he would like to be introduced as Joker. When asked why he would like to be Joker, Arthur responds:
"well that's what you called me on your show right? Joker."
Much in the same way that Hillary Clinton created the deplorables, Donald Trump created shithole countries, the news media, in this case Murray specifically, created the Joker by addressing him as such while mocking his standup on live TV. And then you have Thomas Wayne creating the clowns on a mass scale.
While Arthur was looking for purpose in the world, Murray and Wayne were giving it to him by their verbiage.
And this emotion is another layer to Phoenix's Joker that has yet to exist before. An emotional appeal born in true sadness at the short comings of the world, rather than an emotionless clown who just wants to watch the world burn.
From the front gates of Wayne Manor doing magic for a young Bruce, to the stage of late night comedy clubs for awkward stand up sets, Arthur is an emotional wreck who is just looking for happiness, or as he put it, "I just don't want to feel so bad."
The standup itself was another dark moment that is pivotal in understanding Phoenix's Joker. He struggles, he is unable to make his jokes, the crowd is uneasy as he cackles before them, and then before you know it, he is crushing it with music taking over for awakward jokes. And in the same breath, this standup routine got him on Murray Franklin - his idol - for being so dramatically bad.
Which comes back to why Murray had to die at the end. He pissed off the wrong clown.
"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 fucking deserve."
Here you have one of a number of phrases from this movie which will most certainly end up on hot topic shirts. But you also had the shock value, a scene that was set up as Joker finding his own death on stage, but driven crazy with embarassment he turns the gun on other people.
Yet the most important scene for me in the entire movie comes as Joker stands on the hood of the car tasting his own blood. He is then encouraged to use said blood to paint on his smile, creating a sense of crazy that both detaches the persona of Joker from Arthur and creates a madness and an edge that Arthur did not have.
His desire to be recognized culminated in his willingly becoming a figure of hate and anger in Gotham.
Which was never his goal, but rather his selfish pleasure. The celebrity coming from being the Joker helped make Arthur feel like the world wanted him, even if every choice he had made up until that point was for his own benefit. I mean he is standing amongst an angry mob smearing his face in his own blood and dancing.
But this scene only happens because of what Joker does when he takes the stage opposite Murray, which is something rooted very deeply in modern arguments about society: pride in being the victim. A desire to point out that the world owes you something rather than a desire to take action for yourself. Which is somewhat confused because Arthur assumes the role of Joker and begins taking charge in his own life by becoming a murderous clown.
Not an ideal way to handle grief.
This idea becomes more ironic when you consider the fear mongering that occurred in the run up to the movie's release, branding this picture as a politcal commentary when it in fact was simply a character study in how humans can lose touch with the world in such a way that allows them to burn the world to the ground.
More than that, it is entertaining. It is about being a movie for our pleasure and not a movie for our ego's.
Part of this problem is that unlike Leger's Joker, Phoenix's Joker movie doesn't have a morality savior in Batman who can create a positive wrinkle to a dark plot. Fans have to walk away from a movie in which Joker was paraded through the streets like a hero after battle being driven through the entire scene in the back of a cop car with White Room by Cream blaring in the background.
But it is this sense of surreality that makes Joker so important and uncomfortable for the viewer. How can Arthur truly believe he is hanging out with the neighbor girl only to realize he had imagined all of that. How can Arthur only want happiness, yet inspire violence in his followers.
Ultimately, Arthur is a messed up individual who fails to understand his own issues he's grown into, he is tired of dealing with them, and he forces them onto society because he feels so personally wronged by society. And in the end, his desire to burn the world down fuels a movement of chaos and destruction.
And thus, the politcal point of the whole film for me could be summed up in one sentence: If you don't accept responsibility for who you are, no matter how messed up you are, you become more of a problem than a solution.
But again, this feels more a matter of perspective with this film.
But this isn't the film I saw. I saw a man affected by a laughing disease make the most out of it by becoming a clown for a living. This is the same man who was beaten and abused by a mother who never loved him, all because she said Arthur didn't cry as a baby because his laughing disease forced him to laugh.
By the time he has reached adulthood, Arthur has become increasingly frustrated and angry with those in power who he feel ignore what he truly feels. He'd been overlooked by medical professionals, he had been stabbed in the back by coworkers who wanted him gone, he had been lied to all of his life by his mother.
The film I saw was about a very hurt and lost man looking for a shot at happiness.
I did not see a man telling me to become a more violent form of myself. I saw one looking for acceptance in the world, no matter what the cost.
While Joker is not written intentionally as a politcal commentary, it is still hard for me to ignore some of the obvious ideas put forth in this movie.
The idea of removing classes, making everyone fall on an even playing field in a more socialistic style of government. The common place image of pill bottle and over prescribing of medication to mentally unstable patients playing a key role in the creation of Arthur.
There are heavy themes layered throughout the movie as one would expect, but to me it never felt like these themes were over bearing.
There were things such as Arthur writing in his notebook, "the worst part about mental illness is that they want you to pretend you don't have one", which felt a little cliché and meant for a viral meme.
There are the moments during which Arthur visits Wayne Manor to find his father, but ends up spending time playing with a young Bruce. Frankly, there are a lot of call backs to a very young Bruce, which I suppose is Joaquin's way of keeping Batman out of this world.
There was some incredibly gorgeous cinematography that has it's own case for an Oscar, but a piece of the film that maintains a symbiotic relationship with Joaquin's performance. While Joaquin masterfully bringing to life a new iteration of an old character makes it easier to create iconic shots, the camera work itself contributes to creating an edge to this Joker that rivals Heath ledger.
Ultimately, this movie really just comes down to perception. How did you see it? And more importantly, how did you feel about it?
I saw a man who was broken by society, broken by misfortune, and broken by neglect. I saw a characiture of society, and a representation of what can happen when an entire society of people become angry enough. Not exactly world breaking ideas. We all deal with mental illness nowadays, and Joker has become a vessel for coping with these issues, allowing people to feel normal in a weird movie for an hour or two.
What's even cooler about this is that since the movie's release, Joaquin Phoenix has been making rounds to showings and personally thanking fans for coming to see what he had created.
While also teasing that this may not be his only turn behind the paint. And I don't believe he is done. Especially considering 1) I don't know if Phoenix has actually left character and 2) there are too many plotlines sitting wide open for examination.
And this might not be THE Joker, but rather a precursor Joker.
It's simply a fun movie, created by a director known for raunchy comedy.
So, at the end of the day, I saw a beautifully shot movie with a performance that not only left me thinking for days on end, a performance that made me feel something, anything really, in a way that smashed box office records but more importantly creates conversation.
And if there is anything this movie has done, it is create conversation.
*watch the full interview with Phoenix in which he teases a sequel down below*