by Jai Hutchison
"Happy. Hm. I haven’t been happy one day out of my entire fucking life." – Arthur Fleck
Director: Todd Philips
Writers: Todd Philips and Scott Silver
Producers: Bradley Cooper, Emma Tillinger Koskoff and Todd Philips
Based on Characters by DC Comics
On August 31st, 2019, Joker premiered at the 76th Venice International Film Festival, winning the Golden Lion and receiving an 8-minute standing ovation. Since then, Joker has been received by audiences around the world, to quite mixed reviews. Many people across the world actually walked out of the cinema; some claiming it was too violent, some troubled by the way mental health issues were portrayed. NME called it “the most profitable comic book movie ever” and The Guardian labelled it “the most disappointing film of the year”. Personally, I loved it.
Set in Gotham in 1981, Joker looks at the life of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix); a struggling clown and aspiring stand-up comic, whose hopes are to make people laugh. Society has turned its back on Fleck. We see him bullied, mocked, betrayed and quite literally kicked while he is down. When we first meet Arthur Fleck, he is seeing someone who appears to be a social worker, therapist and physician in one, and is also receiving treatment in the form of medication; despite this, he is far from stable. Fleck is lost within his own reality, disconnected from his sanity and exhibits signs of varied mental illnesses such as Pseudobulbar affect; present in Fleck as an involuntary and uncontrollable outburst of laughter. When his access to state provided medication and support services are cut off, Fleck, in his already unhinged mental state, descends on a downward spiral of self-destruction, violence and a journey of self-discovery; due in part to his mother (Frances Conroy) and her potential lies about his father’s identity.
What I love about this movie is the way that it is so unlike other Joker stories. The way in which this could easily be the story and journey of a man, not in Gotham but in my world. All elements that a viewer would often expect from Gotham City are stripped away. Yes, we have the scene with the Wayne’s, we visit Arkham Asylum and it is set in Gotham City. But this story could easily be a portrayal of you or me; there are no superheros and no villains in the traditional sense, just a man that civilisation has given up on, a man lost, a man driven to the precipice of his own sanity by the cruelty of our world. One could actually question if this is in fact a story about the Joker. Or is this a story about a man who struggles deeply with his mental health, his reality and his identity. A man so lost in his own reality, fuelled with hatred and anger towards a society that has abandoned him, who turns to extreme violence as he tries to find solace as well as his place in this, and his own, world.
Alan Moore’s 1988 classic ‘The Killing joke’, has always been my favourite Joker story. It portrays the Joker in a different light to what I had seen before, and it sparked my empathy. (Bear in mind, that I was only 2 years old when The Killing Joke was first released, and that I haven’t read or seen all Joker stories in chronological order of release.) Philips’ and Moore’s Joker character profiles share premises, predominately with both depicting how our external environments can lead to irrational, violent behaviour as well as varying mental illnesses, and also the effects of mental illness on one’s behaviour. The difference between these Jokers is that Moore’s is remembered for having “one bad day”, whereas Tom Philips and Scott Silver bring us a new origin story, which could not only be a bio pic, but is stripped of all stereotypical comic book elements, and that sees Arthur Fleck unravel over many bad days.
Something that I really liked about Joker, which is also present slightly in The Killing Joke, are the elements of raw, exposed humanity; the authenticity and the way in which it actually resonates with our reality on this side of the screen. In Joker, we see this concept magnified. Philips and Silver have truly created a socially relevant movie that reflects the world that we live in today. Other than being set in Gotham, and the scene which depicts the Wayne’s murders, Joker could actually be a movie based on true events, which makes it vastly different to anything I've seen before throughout the streets of Gotham.
Joaquin Phoenix was simply beautiful in this movie. His connection with the character and the role that he portrayed will definitely make a lasting impact; for some, a positive one, for others not so much. For me, I had goosebumps. His dedication and commitment to this role was unbelievable, with the actor actually losing just under 4 stone in preparation for this role; as I am sure those of you who have seen Joker, will have noticed. When asked about the weight loss, Phoenix commented, saying that “as it turns out, that then affects your psychology. You start to go mad when you lose that amount of weight in that amount of time." I am not surprised.
Watching Phoenix in this movie felt like a privilege. He was just outstanding. A favourite scene of mine is the bathroom scene pictured above, in which Fleck dances, moving with such poise. This scene, along with several others was actually improvised by Phoenix, as he was given the opportunity to explore his creativity and improvisation talents on set, which cinematographer Lawrence Sher talks about in an interview with Slash Film. I am sure fans of Heath Ledger’s Joker won’t like me for saying this, but Phoenix has got to be my favourite Joker of all time.
If I had to find one flaw in this movie, it would be that I was expecting to see Harley on the other side of that table at the end. But again, overall, I really enjoyed the take on this movie with the lack of traditional elements such as superheroes or multiverses.
If you still haven’t seen Joker yet, do not be put off by Todd Philips’ previous works, which are mostly comedies, some of which are awful. However, his work on Joker is incredible; I wouldn’t be surprised to see Joker sweep at the 2020 Oscars.