A Joker movie poster depicts the villain dressed in his full regalia and leaning back triumphantly at the top of an outdoor staircase. However, near the film’s beginning, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), depressed, tired and undernourished, sluggishly ascends that same staircase. Thus, director Todd Phillips establishes a pact with the viewer: I will show you, he implies, the transformation of this struggling nobody into Batman’s vibrant archenemy.
Gotham is a crime-ridden, depressing city in the midst of a garbage strike. Clown-for-hire Arthur lives in a rundown apartment building with his shut-in mother Penny (Frances Conroy). Arthur gets beat up, lied to, made fun of, taken advantage of… and on top of all that, he suffers from severe mental illness, including a “condition” that causes him to laugh uncontrollably, even in circumstances that he doesn’t necessarily find funny.
Abandoned by society, Arthur fights back against his oppressors and begins to embrace his mental illness. Phoenix’s masterful performance renders a character with mesmerizing unpredictability. Arthur’s individuality manifests in everything from his unorthodox humour and extended bouts of laughter to his clownish run and the ever-shifting expressions on his gaunt face. When Arthur laughs hysterically after he discovers tragic news about himself, the viewer feels competing emotions – it’s funny, but it’s intensely sad. Throughout Joker, the viewer experiences something rare in today’s films: empathy with the bad guy.
Historically, Joker has been portrayed as a criminal mastermind. Phoenix’s deranged version seems incapable of such elaborate planning. Arthur, his sights set on becoming a stand-up comedian, has no grand philosophy or goal – he just wants to be noticed. Thus, it’s fascinating to watch as Gotham’s underprivileged citizens misinterpret his actions and establish him as the symbol of a movement against the rich and powerful.
During the film, Arthur does a great deal of ascending and descending of staircases. Fitting, since his journey involves a descent from the “higher ground” of how the world wants him to act down to the pandemonium of the streets, where he will be king. As a film, Joker also steps down from Hollywood’s comic book pedestal dominated by one-dimensional characters, silly banter, clichés, and overblown special effects. Batman and Iron Man have their expensive technologies. Captain America and Wolverine have their strength. Spider-Man has his acrobatics. But Joker has the most potent power of all: his eccentricity.—Douglas J. Ogurek *****