‘Joker’ is an intriguing and terrifying look at a man giving into madness

With Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the director strove to place the character’s story within a realistic and darker tone. Since then, Warner Brothers/DC has had a love-hate relationship with darker films. With the much-storied backlash against 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and the behind the scenes drama of 2017’s Justice League, the studio had to strike a medium between the hardness of their stories and the needs of their audience. With the success of Deadpool films and Wolverine’s swan song, Logan, it at least showed there was a thirst for more adult comic book films.

This is where director Todd Philips came in with a specific pitch at the premiere of War Dogs. A special division of darker films that are separate from the main DC film universe. Joker is a two hour and two minutes expose into the lore of the DC’s most stories villains in a real-world setting. Given recent history, it’s a bold chance to take given previous feedback – yet a triumphant one that will set the studio apart.

Our main character is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally-ill, middle-aged aspiring comedian who resides with his mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy). Fleck is the movie’s example of a downtrodden every man. Misunderstood and often misguided at the beginning of the film, Arthur searches for a purpose to believe in and somebody to convey some sort of compassion to him. With Penny and Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beats), the main women that Arthur has interaction with become an emotional pillar for him, whether requited or not. One of the things that movie cautions are the basis of substantial relationships and what makes them real.

Interestingly, both in Fleck’s mission statement (bring happiness to the world) and occupation (clown, aspiring comedian) is all based on providing some sense of joy to other people. A joy that is not necessarily reciprocated back to him from the world and that he cannot find within himself.

Even with his diagnosis of pathological laughter, it serves as a mask slowly tightening over Arthur’s mental psyche. He’s not able to accurately express himself in a world that is determined not to listen to him anyway. Whether it be due to his history of mental illness or sheltered upbringing, Arthur Fleck views the world through a child-like lens. As an adult, and especially within the time frame, that lends him to be a little too naive and trusting in a world where everybody is trying to get a piece of the pie for themselves.

Philips has stated that character studies from early Martin Scorsese films and the graphic novel, Batman: The Killing Joke served as inspirations for part of the story for Joker. If you look at 1976’s Taxi Driver and 1982’s The King of Comedy, the main characters of Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin each have some DNA within the Arthur Fleck character. There’s a point of obsession with both Bickle and Pupkin. With Bickle, it’s both a love interest and a warped sense of vigilanteism. For Pupkin, it’s the intoxicating nature of making the big time to the point where all rational sensibilities go out the window.

Some inferences are used when it comes to Joker origin, but with two particular characters, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) and Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) the question of hierarchy permeates congruently with Arthur’s singular story. Wayne, while running for Mayor is shown in a less than understanding light when it comes to Gotham’s underclass. Franklin, night talk show host, and a play on De Niro’s character from The King of Comedy is tunnel-visioned in search of his next bit. Neither of these characters is able to see outside of themselves and the lives that their prestige has provided them. Both interact with Arthur’s illusion of grandeur in some way.

The performance and transformation of Joaquin Phoenix is nothing short of fascinating. In a role that calls him to be alone for decent stretches of the movie, he fully depicts a haunting transformation of a man slowly coming apart. At times, he’s able to convey this without dialogue. When he does speak, you’re captivated, and emotions range from being empathetic to revolted or terrified as you go throughout the film.

For most of the movie, the 1980’s backdrop of Gotham is devoid of any invigorating color, suffocating with things such as trash and graffiti, and unforgiving. This is both a poignant representation of both the civil powder keg that is prevalent through the relationship between the rich and the poor and within Arthur himself. The cinematography style of Lawrence Sher together with Phillips does a phenomenal job at showing this through simple things like a long, towering stairwell. There is also a play on light and dark lighting as we flow through Arthur’s psychosis. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score sometimes plays as a sad symphony or as a tribal warning sign on the impending violence to come.

It’s almost if the essence of The Joker character is an entity or a spirit of chaos finding home within a man searching for some semblance of understanding. Not knowing who you are or where you come from can lead to potentially dangerous circumstances. When people are in dire straits, they are always looking for a pillar of hope or salvation. There’s always somebody to blame and that in itself is a dangerous game to play. Anger is an emotion that can be misguided, molded, and used against those who don’t deserve it.

Joker is a movie that comes down to making the right choices. As Philips co-wrote the story of the film with Scott Silver, there doesn’t feel like there is a winner of the story. The cries of the mentally ill and poor are often pushed as white noise in this universe. It’s very bleak and unforgiving. By one character reaching their salvation, many either perish or are forever affected by the choices that they make. Once you walk out of the theater, the movie doesn’t leave you with a satisfying feeling of triumph, but it confronts you with colliding feelings of emotion.

In The Dark Knight, Michael Kaine’s version of Alfred spoke to Bruce Wayne and stated the words: And in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand. There should be trepidation in joining a movement by a single act of violence. As Arthur devolves against the world that he vehemently blames, he lets go of all inference of making the correct choice. It becomes subjective to him.

While you feel empathy for all the colliding things working against him, Arthur Fleck is by no means a hero. His unfortunate circumstances and afflictions do not absolve him of the decisions he makes which could influence someone else adversely. No matter what, there’s still a difference between right or wrong and you always have a choice.

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Author: Murjani Rawls View all posts by
Writer | Photographer | Beast

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