Director/cowriter Todd Phillips (of the obnoxious “Hangover” movies) offers this latest take on the now 79-year old Batman villain “Joker” in a film so utterly dark, and so morally complex that I actually wish it weren’t a DC comics movie. The movie borrows more heavily from the works of early Martin Scorsese films than the universe of Bob Kane’s “Batman.” There is also a train chase sequence right out of William Friedkin’s “The French Connection” as well as an ominous staircase that’d be right at home outside of Regan McNeill’s window in “The Exorcist.”
This isn’t another DC comic book origins story so much as a meticulously crafted homage to the gritty, dark, oppressive antihero sagas that populated 1970s cinema… right down to its use of the nearly forgotten red & white Warner Bros logo. As a fan of those movies, I appreciate Todd Phillips’ authentic period recreation.
Beaten by life, middle-aged, mentally ill clown-for-hire Arthur Fleck (an absolutely brilliant Joaquin Phoenix) scrapes by in late 1970s “Gotham City” (a thinly-veiled NYC). When we first meet him, he is doing fire sale promotion for a dying music store. It’s during this gig that he is beaten within an inch of his life in a futile attempt to stop young street punks from stealing his sign. Arthur lies beaten and broken in an alleyway full of garbage… the rows of trash line the city like artificial shrubbery in Hell. Adding insult to injury (literally), his boss holds him accountable for the loss of the music store’s sign.
After his horrible day, Arthur climbs a formidable staircase leading to the shabby apartment in which he shares an unhealthy, quasi-Norman Bates’ relationship with his mother Penny (Francis Conroy). Living down the hall is an attractive, young single mother named Sophie (Zazie Beetz, of “Deadpool 2”) with whom he awkwardly attempts to connect early on. A side effect of Arthur’s mental state causes him to break out in loud, nervous, almost-braying laughter whenever he is stressed or confronted. It’s downright painful to hear. Humor doesn’t come naturally to this tragic ‘clown’… even his own mother doesn’t think he’s funny.
The world for Arthur is a dirty, depressing cesspool of rejection and hostility. Even his social worker (Sharon Washington) has to feign both interest and compassion for a man she sees as little more than a number in a system. She asks him the same tired questions every week. Clinically noting Arthur’s downward spiral, she is both powerless and disinterested to actively do anything about it. Arthur Fleck is the kind of person who’ll just slip through society’s cracks, because no one gives a damn.
Since many of the world’s best comedians have come from a place of pain, this truly pathetic would-be clown decides on a career in standup comedy. Writing down jokes in a scribbled journal, Arthur eventually gets his shot during an open-mic night at a local comedy club. He fails spectacularly… so much so that a bootleg tape of his painful performance comes to the attention of his idol; late-night TV talk show host Murray Franklin (an ironically cast Robert De Niro, who played a more confident variation on Arthur’s character in Scorsese’s “King Of Comedy”).
Following his standup fiasco, Arthur gets a decent gig as a dancing clown at a children’s hospital; only to lose it when a loaded gun given to him by a ‘friend’ (following his earlier beating) drops out of his coat during a performance in full sight of the kids and the staff. He is immediately fired by his agency. It’s on his subway ride home, still in full clown makeup, where Arthur’s life is irrevocably changed.
In this pivotal scene, seemingly inspired by the 1984 subway vigilantism of Bernhard Goetz, Arthur begins his involuntary laughter as three toxic yuppies harass a nearby woman. Arthur’s nervous cackling diverts their attention away from her and towards him. In the following scuffle, Arthurs pulls out the weapon that cost him his job, as the situation rapidly escalates out of control with fatal results.
Feeling emboldened, a fugitive Arthur briefly stops in a seedy public restroom to afford himself a pathetic ‘victory dance’ over his dead assailants. The scenes of and following the shootings lack any feeling of ‘heroism’; they are seen only as feral survival. In this film there are no heroes to root for, nor villains to jeer. Despite critiques I’ve read that the film somehow champions incels (involuntary celibates, who often go on violent streaks to vent their sexual frustrations), this is decidedly not the case. I can’t imagine anyone actively wishing to be like Arthur, even if they quietly relate to his frustrations. Arthur Fleck is a sad and pathetic person, and not a ‘hero’ in any sense.
Following the killings, the subway “Clown Shooter” becomes big news, but the timid Arthur has to enjoy his infamy anonymously, since his own clown makeup obscured a positive ID. Arthur’s downward spiral accelerates as he begins to enjoy this newfound feeling of empowerment. It enables him to take other bold (and sometimes imaginary) actions.
Arthur is soon confronted with a questioning of his own parentage, courtesy of a letter from his delusional mother. The letter prompts Arthur to misguidedly attempt to appeal to his mother’s former employer, wealthy industrialist Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). Large black iron gates surrounding Wayne Manor form a forbidding barrier between haves and have-nots. Thomas Wayne is, of course, the father of future Batman Bruce Wayne (Dante Pareira Olson), who is seen in the film as an innocent child of privilege. Arthur’s Don Quixote-like conflict with his mother’s former employer continues to escalate, culminating in an eventual confrontation.
As Arthur becomes more assertive in both his private life with mother and the outside world, he no longer medicates (can’t afford it anymore, due to an underfunded system), and boundaries become increasingly thin. The disparaged citizenry of Gotham, reacting favorably towards the subway vigilante, begin to riot and protest as part of a movement sparked by their newfound anonymous ‘hero’. Fleck is finally being heard (albeit anonymously) after years of being a silent, forgotten side-effect of an indifferent and hostile system; a system currently championed by the pro-establishment Thomas Wayne. Wayne is also running for mayor of Gotham, and part of his worldview derides the unambitious as “clowns,” which pours gasoline onto the flames of Gotham’s angry mobs. Like the Joker’s goons we see at the beginning of 2008’s “The Dark Knight”, the subway vigilante’s followers begin to wear cheap plastic clown masks in solidarity with their ‘hero.’
Arthur settles a grisly personal score before showing up for his big break on Murray Franklin’s TV show. In the biggest homage to 1982’s “The King Of Comedy”, the antihero gets his ‘big night’ on TV, in spite of what he’s done. Unlike De Niro’s own Rupert Pukin in “King…”, Arthur’s meeting with his TV idol goes fairly well… at first. Franklin is oblivious to the danger Arthur represents, due in part to apathy and his overriding concern for getting in a few laughs and some ratings points. That’s all Franklin sees when the clearly deranged Fleck shows up in green hair dye and clown makeup; an opportunity to exploit.
Given Arthur’s increasingly violent and dangerous downward slide, his summit with Franklin quickly goes to hell. The interview rapidly deteriorates, and after a grisly act of metamorphosis on live TV, the titular “Joker” emerges. Fame is infamy, and infamy is fame. It was certainly true enough in the early 1980s, and even more so today.
The final scenes of “Joker” set up the Batman origin story for the umpteenth time (as if Arthur meeting with a young Bruce at the gates of Wayne Manor wasn’t enough). Personally I’d have preferred it if we never saw young Bruce Wayne in this story at all. Reiterating Batman’s origin (yet again) ties this otherwise disturbing and provocative film to its comic book roots like a pair of cement overshoes.
The painstaking care with which antihero Arthur Fleck has been established must ultimately boil down to a battle between ‘good and evil’… the kind of oversimplification that this movie has struggled to dissuade. This latest version of the Joker is the damaged product of an apathetic, underfunded mental healthcare system and toxic parenting. Arthur Fleck isn’t really a master of anything, let alone a crime boss. He inspires others more by accident and circumstance than with brilliant planning or strategy. Yet we know that one day he’ll be reduced to a wacky villain taking on a rubber-suited rich kid with a really cool car. Too bad…
I’d hate to see a future sequel where this Martin Scorsese-inspired antihero squares off against Superman or Wonder Woman. It’d be a like seeing “Taxi Driver” Travis Bickle getting his ass kicked by Captain America, or Popeye Doyle getting an assist from Iron Man. Yes, this is the Joker, and he is a Batman villain, but if this movie were truly aiming to be a 1970s antihero film, the final shot would’ve most likely seen Fleck lying dead in the street, having just spent his fifteen minutes of fame.
That nagging issue aside, “Joker” is an otherwise fearlessly deep dive into the kinds of unglamorous pathology one rarely sees explored in a big studio film these days. Joaquin Phoenix could easily become the second actor to win an Oscar for the same role (following in the late Heath Ledger’s footsteps). Perhaps incentivized by a scrappier budget ($55 million) and gritty retro-1970s feel, Todd Phillips has crafted a surprisingly functional partnership between pop culture and nihilistic antiheroism.