There have been several distinguished portrayals in movies about the villainous antagonist who lives to make Batman’s life a pit of chaos and misery.
However, this one does not even mention Batman and is void of large-scale action scenes altogether. Todd Phillips‘ Joker (2019) is a character study rather than a DC superhero movie and could, in theory, all the same be named Arthur.
Let’s get into that aspect first.
The director said part of his pitch for “Joker” was telling Warner Bros. that he was making a 1970s character study like “Serpico,” but dressed up as a 2019 comic book movie. (Indiewire)
As Phillips saw it, there was still room to tell a new story about this villain, closer in spirit to grimy urban narratives he admired, like “Taxi Driver,” “Death Wish” and “The King of Comedy.” […] Arthur descends into a cycle of retribution and violence, becoming a folk hero for all the wrong reasons. “You want to root for this guy until you can’t root for him any longer,” Phillips explained. (NY Times)
So on one hand we have a protagonist who allegedly has a mental disability (not explained further) that makes him laugh uncontrollably whenever he is overwhelmed with emotion or feeling vulnerable. In itself that can be seen as an empathy-inducing maneuver to make Arthur seem like a victim who cannot control himself and what he does. However, Joaquin Phoenix himself has explicitly said that Arthur is first and foremost a narcissist and is very much aware of what he is doing, although Phillips also says they didn’t want to define Arthur’s maladies because it is firstly open for interpretation and also not their place to diagnose someone. (LA Times)
In that context, let’s talk about Joaquin Phoenix’s performance next.
To my knowledge this has been the strongest reaction I have ever had to a movie going by the first few minutes. Phoenix puts such intensity into the sadness, hopefulness, violence, hatred, self-loathing and finally the happiness of his character that one cannot help but to feel completely overwhelmed.
Arthurs development goes from an employed clown and subject to violence from others into the Joker who inflicts chaos, violence and anarchy wherever he goes and so far there is no other who can execute that better than Phoenix did.
Once he has climaxed into the Joker and can dance on a burning car whilst others chant his name, Arthur is finally happy and free.
This development is supported by an outstandingly crafted visual portrayal of the city, the inhabitants, the rising mob – but first and foremost, of the protagonist himself.
The visuals were insanely good from beginning to end. I won’t try to expand on the technicalities and the camerawork but rather recommend those of you who are interested in that to check out an in-depth article on Indiewire about the impact of large format digital cameras (link). The vast majority of moviegoers have little technical knowledge about cameras, lenses and frames, but can nonetheless apprecciate and pinpoint good camera work and aesthetically pleasing scenes – of which there were many to be found in Joker. I immensely enjoyed the artistical execution of the visual aspect of the movie.
Visually, Joker is a really weird mixture of 300, Clockwork Orange and Fight Club (see another article here about movie inspirations for Joker – link). As Indiewire explains and as I cognitively recognized, it lets you experience the individual close-up and at the same time see his surroundings clearly, giving you an intimate perspective to the character, and simultaneously showing his perspective to his immediate surroundings.
Its unique and beautiful and I was absolutely in awe of so many scenes. The magic was real: although many scenes from a framing and focal perspective seemed aesthetically so perfect they must have been staged, somehow the result was still organic and real. As a viewer I felt as much a part of Arthur’s mind as could be.
What about the story, though?
A failed stand-up comedian with serious mental issues makes it onto a talk show, where he murders someone on live air and becomes a hero for the rioting masses. At the same time, that same individual who has been employed as a clown, was ridiculed and assaulted by those same masses. He has found a way to rise above the oppression by surpassing the herd and by shocking the herd, by doing something the herd wishes they could do but cannot. So, by becoming the villain, the Joker has become the hero. Now isn’t that ironic.
All of the abovementioned makes for a unique, cinematically and intellectually advanced study of a comic book villain who makes us think and argue about our own bottom lines and moral compasses rather than marvel at explosions. Because as Phillips says, I really do want to root for Arthur Fleck.
The only critique in regards to the plot related to the Wayne family, which feels very constructed. Although the idea of leaving it unclear and open – as it also remains from Arthurs perspective – is a fine choice, I don’t feel like it was handled in such a fine manner as every other aspect of the movie. However, leaving that (as well as Arthur’s imaginary romantic dalliances and the real truth of his childhood, both of which remain either active bombshells for a sequel or just open to interpretation) on the sidelines once again seems to be the authentic choice.
In the end, Arthur the psychopath and narcissist is only interested in himself and his impact on the world.
Even the ending of the movie, in my mind, is absolutely perfect – Arthur skipping away along the floors of a mental institution, blood on his soles, humming to a happy-go-lucky tune. He has found freedom in his insanity and thus is now complete, but as the same damaged individual he was struggling to embrace in the beginning of the movie.
What a marvelous movie. No wonder it received an eight-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival. (Independent) In my mind, I am also still standing up and clapping.