I went to see Joker opening weekend in a full IMAX theater. I was unmoved most of the film, but the gasps from the audience made it an enjoyable experience. I left feeling sour, angry and didn’t think Joker deserved a review from me. When the Oscar nominations were announced I was confused and astounded at the eleven awards it was nominated for. What was I missing? So the other night I gave it another go at home. I still can’t say I like Joker, but with that second viewing some of the themes and ideas settled better and I can say it’s a good movie.
In Todd Phillips’ reincarnation of the classic Batman villain, Joker tells the story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) and his transformation from an aspiring comedian to the face behind a riotous anti-rich movement in Gotham City. This poor joker lives with his mother, works as an advertising clown on the rough streets, and sees a government mandated counselor in order to get his medication. He carries a card explaining how he can break into unstoppable fits of laughter at any moment. One by one, the things that give his life meaning are taken away. He loses his job. The government cuts the program that gives him help and medication. His comedy act bombs so badly the local late night TV host makes fun of him. And he learns a horrible truth about his mother.
One of the most surprising aspects about this version of an infamous villain is how he becomes a villain in his own self defense. In the train scene that turns into a triple murder, we don’t completely fault Arthur. He was being beaten and shot in self defense. Ok, that third guy on the stairs was definitely murder. When he sees what his mysterious murder has started, it seems to validate his existence and says, “For my whole life I didn’t’ even know I even existed, but I do and people are starting to notice.” For a mentally ill guy recently off his medication, it makes perfect sense to keep it up. Keep being noticed. Keep moving your world in the only way you’ve found that works: violence.
Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is the obviously great thing in this film. In my first viewing I walked away knowing he would get an Oscar nomination for his role. The Joker has been played in so many times and Phoenix finds a new edge for this character, making him both sympathetic and loathsome. He makes Arthur the kind of guy you really feel bad for, but you make sure to stay away from him. I’d move seats if I was that lady with her kid on the bus. His laugh is something truly creepy and becomes a noise stuck in your head and creeping into your mind at weak moments.
There is one scene that frightened me to tears in the theater and still got under my skin at home. I’m about to spoil it, so skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t seen Joker. When two of Arthur’s former co-workers visit to help cheer him up, it turns into a vicious murder. I felt so awful for the dwarf man witnessing his friend’s death and the only way out is right in front of Arthur. What made me break down in tears was when he could not reach the door latch! It’s small obstacle in such an awful, desperate moment and I was so scared for that man’s life. Maybe it’s because I’m also very short and can see a high door latch sealing my doom, but that whole scene, its quick brutality and drawn out fear struck a deep chord.
Somehow, Joker is nominated for a whopping eleven Oscar nominations. Eleven. That’s more than any other film this year. They include Best Picture, adapted screenplay, cinematography, film editing, costume design, original score, makeup and hairstyling, sound mixing and sound editing. Phoenix is nominated for best actor. And Todd Phillips, who has directed movies like The Hangover and Old School, is nominated for best director.
What Joker does best is show us an unforgiving, dirty version of Gotham City with the lower class pushed to their limits and rising up against Thomas Wayne and his rich elites. With programs to help the poor and mentally ill being taken away, those affected fall with no safety net. These ideas are captivating and frightening in this chapter of American history. All they needed was one joker to push back and the whole city began to burn.
“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”