“Joker,” winner of the prestigious Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival has created more than an Oscar stir. The controversial film is also igniting anti-gun organizations’ political battles as Warner Bros. stands behind this origin story of The Joker. Starring Joaquin Phoenix as the deranged, unstable and anti-social sociopath, director Todd Phillips (“The Hangover”) creates one of the franchise’s darkest and most disturbingly sinister back stories that actually rings true to the graphic novel. While this certainly isn’t a film for every viewer, Phillips gives this genre’s fans a story that may change the DC Universe forever.
The opening scene sets the shockingly dark tone of this film as we see Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), dressed as a jester who becomes the recipient of a random act of violence. Fleck is a broken man trying to support his ailing mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy) in a dirty, dilapidated tenement building. He dotes on her, sacrificing for himself in an effort to make her as comfortable as possible, but he seems to have a target on his back as he is constantly pummeled with verbal and physical abuse by co-workers and strangers alike. Receiving social welfare benefits and medical aid for his condition, it’s pitiful to watch this poor man getting squished beneath the shoe of mankind as no one really seems to care about him. Actually, no one seems to care for anyone but themselves. When Arthur inadvertently receives a revolver, his brain snaps and so too does his trigger finger.
The world around Arthur in the dark world of Gotham is out of control. The political figures are vying for power, promising a brighter, safer world. And it is within this political world displayed through the medium of television that the tentacles of connection reach out and betray Arthur. Believing in a story told by his mother, Arthur begins to search for the truth about his own background, leading him down a path that will change him and Gotham. And as they say, with knowledge, comes power, but in this case, it’s an extraordinarily evil power.
The film stays true to the graphic novel, but adds so many deeply realistic elements to the story that it hits a little too close to home. “Joker” addresses our current political state with the hatred and division and more importantly, the power of the 1%. We also see how our system is failing so many who desperately need help, particularly the mentally ill. The social service programs are cut in the film’s story and this is a key aspect to Arthur’s deviation and of course, we see this happening in our world today. Gun violence, access, and regulations are also at the heart of the film as is the power of media and celebrity. It’s a complicated story that truly touches upon our current world, sitting upon a fragile precipice.
With all of these underlying components, the film also depicts the lack of humanity and compassion, an integral part of the survival of mankind and a way for Joker to rise. Without this compassion, chaos is unleashed, finding the perfect breeding ground for evil and rebellion, the two perhaps not so definitively separate. Creating a film that has all of these aspects, but also setting up one of the most well-known good vs. evil super heroes scenarios in this universe is a huge undertaking that Phillips capably creates, but it is Phoenix’s performances that will ultimately haunt you long after the credits roll.
Phoenix provides all the layers of his character as we watch him go through a metamorphosis. Our hearts break for this man, watching him suffer with no support and the subject of ridicule. He devolves into the Joker and while we do not agree with what he does, we have an understanding for him—now that’s a tough character to so artistically and evocatively create.
Media plays a hefty role in this film as well, particularly with the Johnny Carson type of talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Within this role, De Niro brings a cutting humor, reminding us of the power of words and that sarcasm creates ill will and not laughs. As the tension builds around Arthur and Franklin, the outside forces are also bubbling to the surface; a volcano about to erupt. While the story focuses primarily upon Arthur, there are several sub stories that occur, all intersecting at the most intense time, giving a sense of dread and discomfort throughout.
Conceptually, socially, and intellectually this film is disturbing, but the startling and realistic violence was more than unnerving. It was distressing. There were plenty of scenes that I wanted or perhaps even needed to cover my eyes, but those images will forever be ingrained in my mind. And perhaps if so many of these issues weren’t so relevant today, the violence wouldn’t have been as upsetting. But they are and it is.
As a piece of art, and film is an art form, “Joker” masterfully finds a voice for the brutal and believable backstory for The Joker. Phoenix gives this character incredible realistic depth which may help you see others who struggle in a more compassionate way. In the end, however, this is a film for super hero fans. It stays true to the graphic novel and creates an incredibly realistic persona and world that hits very close to home; perhaps too close. The shocking violence seems to be used for shock value alone rather than for the use of the plot. Oh, and the running time is, of course, too long. That seems to be a super hero film’s MO.
3 1/2 Stars (for fans of this genre)