[A guest unreview!] As I sit to write this it’s been 24 hours, give or take, since I watched Joker and, if I’m honest, I’m still trying to unpack it. I’m trying to decode various things about the film, including if I actually liked it. This is a film about which an awful lot will be written, by a lot of smart people and some idiots. Depending on your point of view, I probably fall somewhere between the two. So, fair warning, there will be spoilers ahead and this article is certainly best read after viewing said movie. With that said…
I can start with the easy things for those rebels amongst you who are reading this without having seen it.
Is it good? – Yes.
Will I enjoy it? – Enjoy is a subjective word in this instance.
Is this film Taxi Driver or Falling Down for a new generation? – Probably.
Is it film of the year? – I don’t know, but it will be hard to find something to beat it.
Is it a DC superhero/villain film? – Absolutely not. In fact, I’m fairly amazed they allowed this to be made using their IP, more on this later.
Is Phoenix a good Joker? – Yes, he’s a very different joker to any we have seen before.
So here is your chance to stop reading and decide if you want to see the film before carrying on. You really should. If you’ve already seen it, or don’t care, let’s begin.
Joaquin Phoenix should absolutely win Best Actor at the Oscars. Without doubt. Nailed on. In the film he gives a masterclass in movement as well as acting. How he runs after the kids who steal his sign in his clown shoes is the same way he runs without them. It’s odd, a movement we aren’t used to seeing. At first when he’s chasing the kids, it’s funny in a black and white comedy way, even though shortly after the situation he ends up in is anything but funny. Later when he’s running away from the Police, it’s no longer funny, it’s strange and, by this time, you’ve seen Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck do so many other weird things it’s hard to keep up. But he makes you. He makes you remember all of it. It’s not just running, his dancing is superb, in fact the physicality of the entire piece is somewhat Chaplinesque – not something I ever imagined I would see in a film about the Joker. But then I think about it for a little longer and wonder, why shouldn’t I have expected this? The parallels between the Clown Prince of Crime and Hollywood’s ultimate clown have always been there, just never so blatantly exposed on film.
The transformative process Arthur goes through is brutal. At the start he’s fragile and insecure, but getting by supporting himself and his mother, albeit hanging on by his fingertips. Then he’s literally and figuratively beaten and broken, shrivelled up in his thin shell, becoming a miserable wretch of a creature, before caterpillar-into-moth-like emerging as the steely eyed, full of confidence, malice and chaotic, Joker. A painfully thin Phoenix conveys this all expertly, flawlessly. The shot of the newly emerged, or fully realised, Joker dancing down the steps is going to be, if not already, iconic. Those same steps Arthur spent the film labouring up, dragging himself up, he now saunters down with swagger and finesse. He saunters and shimmies his way into what he has become. The simplistic view is that the uphill struggle of surviving, in a city where no one loves anyone, where someone like Arthur Fleck can be surrounded by people, but feel so utterly alone, has been replaced with his descent into madness. There’s much more to it than that though: going up the steps he was always going home; this time, we know he’s not coming home ever again. Arthur Fleck and the steps, the film as a whole, will be the topic for many an undergrad and postgrad thesis for years to come.
The Gotham that Arthur inhabits is horrible and almost as much of a character as anyone in the film. Gotham is a meatgrinder, chewing people up and churning them out. It’s dark and dingy: even in daylight, its stench permeates through the screen. Public services are being shut down, including the Social Services that care (I use that word lightly) for Arthur. The streets are lined with litter and under attack by rat infestations because the sanitation department are on strike. There is graffiti everywhere. The Haves, those with money and influence, are immune to it, including a very deliberately unlikable Wayne family, and the Have-Nots are all but on their knees. Shutters can be seen everywhere. You just know most of the stores have bandit screens and all of their wares are beyond public reach. There seems to be adult movie theatres in every shot. It’s a hard New York of the 70s and 80s: when it was the murder capital of the world. Perhaps more worryingly, it’s also right now. Draw your own parallels between where you live, what is happening around you and what they have in common with this version of Gotham. I hope there aren’t any, but I’m confident there will be more than you’d like to admit.
As much as the city has it in for Arthur, so does his own brain. In what perhaps is a moment of lucidity, in his journal Arthur scrawls ‘Mental Illness’ in his disturbing storybook. His condition, causing him to laugh when he may want to be doing anything but laughing, is a result of trauma, which he realises as the film progresses. That laugh though. It’s not a laugh you would want to hear in a darkened room that’s for sure. What I found most disconcerting, much more so than the sound of his laughter or the times at which he did it, was when in the comedy club he kept laughing off beat, finding things funny that were not meant to be. Despite his desire to be a stand-up comic, he never understood what funny is. The tiny peeks we got inside his journal showed that much. If I was in that club with that laughing going on, he’s the guy I’d be watching, not the comedian. I don’t want to say too much about the mental health side of things. It’s too hot a potato and I know I’d get myself in trouble with someone at some stage. However, what I will say is that what makes Arthur Fleck relatable is that ultimately it was only a few bad days, coupled with uncontrollable external circumstances that pushed him hard enough to break. That is something we can all relate to: we’ve been there through those tough days where the sucker punches just kept coming and we’ve kept walking into them. Punch drunk and because we didn’t know what else to do. We might have even thought of taking drastic action but had the resolve and support not to, support that Arthur badly needed and just didn’t have.
It’s not a DC film we’ll ever see expanded into a universe, even if there is tentative talk of a sequel already. There’s no way there can be a Batman with a Joker who is that malevolent. This is the full throttle, Killing Joke Joker. It’s the Joker who kills Sarah Essen, throwing a baby at her to distract her so he can shoot her. Its the Joker who would murder Robin without thinking twice, the Joker who blows up schools, makes it rain glass on Gotham, and even broke his own neck. This Joker is almost too terrifying to come up against Batman on film, because there’s no way DC will allow what could easily become a Saw movie but starring the Batman and the Joker. And even if they could share the screen together, there’s an issue with the age difference: a prime Batman at say 30, would be pitted against a Joker who is what mid to late 60s? But IF they ever did, if they could find a way through sensible nonsense, a way that kept us in a believable world, well, that could well end up being the mother of all superhero films.
As stated previously, I’m actually amazed that DC have let this film be made in their universe. This is warts and all film making covering some disturbing topics. Arthur could be called George, Joker could easily be just called Bobo. It could have been set in the real New York of the 70s and 80s. All of the things happening in the film could happen without having names like Arkham, Wayne, and Gotham, and the film would still be a superb character study about a man who hasn’t had the best in life and is changed because of it. At some point I’d like to see DC come out and explain why, not because I think it was the wrong move, but I think it was incredibly ballsy to allow it and to see what, if any, plans they have for it in the future.
That’s it I think. That’s all I’ve got, for now at least. Although there is still so much more to go at: the representation and role of violence in the film, Arthur’s relationship with his mother, the Waynes, which parts were real and which existed solely in Arthur’s imagination, the cinematography and colour pallet used, Todd Phillips’ direction, and more. Then there are the things outside of the film, Incels and SJW’s, feminism and toxic masculinity, the American Army calling for caution for the fear of causing mass shootings, the walk outs, woke culture killing comedy and the bi-polar reviews. This film has so much going on, not just in it but around it as well.
Joker is one of those rare films that has left me giving serious thought to it from the second I left the theatre. I spent the rest of the night talking with my partner about it, chatting on twitter, watching and reading reviews, writing this one and I’m still no closer to knowing exactly where I stand on the film. I know I’m going to need to see it again, possibly a few times just so I can develop everything I think about it into cohesive thoughts and opinions. It’s certainly a film that stays with you, provokes you to think and examine your own standpoints on various topics and I’m all for that. It certainly has my full recommendation.
[Garry holds a BA and MA in Creative Writing. He watches too much television and doesn’t write enough. You can find him at @Grimgarry on twitter and his new website www.grimgarry.com will be launching soon.]