The critically acclaimed (and equally maligned) Joker is finally here, and with it comes a huge amount of controversy about the content, the questionable comments of the director and all manner of other needless political agendas and discussions. Factors which, at the end of the day, really don’t have a place in one’s mind when actually viewing the film for what it is.
Director Todd Phillips has done an interesting job here, managing to create a world where pretty much nobody – with one or two minor exceptions – is likable in any way shape or form. Joker provides a gripping insight into the serial killer plague in America during the 1960s-80s, using well-known characters from popular culture to shine a light on the horrors of mental illness, and does so in a world with nods to the established DC universe and worrying parallels to our own.
It’s worth pointing out that Joker is not just a film for DC fans (in fact, it will no doubt piss a lot of hard-core fans off), but it certainly is one for film fans and anyone who likes an interesting discussion about the macabre side of the world.
So what’s the story? Well, the film is told through the mouthpiece of Arthur Fleck, a man who suffers from a psychological condition similar to Tourette’s where he struggles with uncontrollable bouts of laughter. Joaquin Phoenix based his vision of the character on this notion, and brilliantly portrays the real pain that Arthur feels, crying and wincing his way through every audible “Ha”.
Fleck takes care of his disabled mother by working as a clown hired for numerous street or charity events, but is hated and berated because of his illness. His dreams of being a comedian are shattered in numerous humiliating ways throughout the course of the film, and the only real outlet for his emotions (his weekly therapy sessions) are removed due to budget cuts. This is an extreme set of circumstances that sets him down the path to becoming the accidental figurehead of the city’s uprising against the ruling classes, but you only have to look into the current state of the class divide in Western culture to see it’s a situation that isn’t too far removed from the truth.
In this way Phillips treads a fine line successfully in allowing the viewer to see exactly how his version of Joker could come into existence in the real world. However, the glaring issue with how the media are portraying the film, as anyone who’s actually seen the it will tell you, is that as a viewer you have absolutely no sympathy for the character whatsoever. Nor should you really have sympathy for anyone in this film, aside from possibly one child who you know full well is well looked after given his background.
While I watched the streets of Gotham in the 1980s projected onto the screen, with the wonderful cinematography and hauntingly beautiful score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, I was instantly reminded of the many documentaries and accounts of serial killers who were active at the time. Namely the Night Stalker, John Wayne Gacy (whose clown makeup, intentionally or not, is hauntingly familiar here) and the Son of Sam in particular. David Berkowitz aka the son of Sam was a serial killer who brought a wave of panic and fear to the streets of New York during the summer of 1976. Like Joker he used a gun, like Joker he too surfed the waves of the media panic that surrounded him, and like the Joker he actually just did it because he was an evil piece of excrement who wanted an excuse for enjoying the feeling of killing innocent people.
The story paints a world that somewhat reflects our own where the lower rank of society are downtrodden – a sentiment you can feel almost every time you turn on the news these days. But it also shows how this character, damaged or not, is just a killer waiting to happen. Some would say he can’t help this, but I beg to differ. Regardless of background or circumstance, this is a story of an evil person choosing to make the decision to kill. There is nothing sympathetic about that. He flat-out says that it’s not society, it’s not because he feels he has to, he simply does it because he was ignored and likes the attention and fame that his despicable actions have given him, taking advantage of the thousands of people with a legitimate reason to rally against the privileged for his own warped sense of self-gratification.
So that’s what I found probably most fascinating about this film. Even though it’s clearly The Joker on the screen, it felt more akin to films like Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, with obvious parallels to the likes of Taxi Driver and The French Connection given the setting. There are also many nods to the DC source material with the inclusion of certain characters like Thomas Wayne and scenes directly inspired (albeit in a fairly meta way) from The Dark Knight Returns, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, and even a wink for us Watchmen fans, but this is a film that could do away with all of its the comic ties and still be an intriguing story in its own right.
For comic fans expecting the kind of direct fan service that Marvel frequently provides, this will definitely ruffle a few feathers. But for those who like a film that makes you think, lets you see the depths of the human psyche and the absolute worst of humanity, this is definitely an experience to be had.
As to whether this is the route that DC and Warner Bros should follow from now on, telling self-contained, character-focused stories instead of trying to recreate Marvel’s “shared universe” success, I’m still undecided. What is clear however is that Joker is nothing less than a thought-provoking masterpiece. Phoenix owns the show with his almost Shakespearean take on this archetype of the Joker character in what is truly an Oscar-worthy performance. It’s a film where every scene is made with perfectionist detail, and whether it’s the set, the music, the lighting or the framing, everything here is designed to give you a deeply uncomfortable experience that will stay with you long after the end credits have rolled.
The writer of this piece was: Indiana “Indy” Marlow
Indy Tweets from @smokingpunkindy