Directed by Todd Phillips
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Zazie Beetz
Villain back-stories tend to just ruin the legendary characters rather than add any substance to them. Most audiences prefer filling in the “how did they become so evil?” gaps themselves rather than be subjected to prequels that explain away baddie favourites like Hannibal Lector, Leatherface or Darth Vader. But Joker is not merely filling in the missing pieces, it exists as an exploration in showing the blurred lines between normalcy and villainy that its title character waltzes over.
Before he becomes the Joker, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a clown who works various jobs, like spruiker and children’s hospital entertainer, though has aspirations to become a stand-up comedian. He lives with his mum, Penny (Frances Conroy), both of whom have unconditional love for each other – she seems to be the only foundation in Arthur’s otherwise extremely slippery life.
His mental illness is aggravated for a variety of reasons: the overflowing garbage that piles up in the streets, the meaningless crime that surrounds him, and the dissolution of the mental care facility that he depends on. But it’s unearthing secrets in his family history that truly sets Arthur off, and he prepares to take out his rage on two men: Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), the smug billionaire political candidate who belittles the lower class, and Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) who humiliates Arthur on his prime-time talk show.
The Joker is likely one of the most fascinating villains our culture has, so it’s fitting that this film works as a character study in what creates evil in our world, and how those who succumb to it find an existential comfort within it. Once Arthur’s Joker starts to emerge, it seems to be the only time Arthur feels comfortable as himself – his bony malnourished frame is often contorted to reflect his deepest discomfort, but when he acts out on violence, his body then dances with a newfound grace. By wronging the wider world that has wronged him, his stress, pain, and hatred give way to a perverse kind of joy.
But the film simply offers all of itself up, never going all the way with condoning or condemning, just merely portraying. Some of its portrayal may be a bit overcooked – the repetitiveness of Arthur’s troubles feels a bit like the film going through a checklist, and the ending (or multiple endings) hit the message home just too hard and too many times.
It may be set in the fictional city of Gotham City in 1981, but this is clearly a purposefully relevant film that may reveal uneasy facets of humanity – aside from some overly-worked reiteration, Joker is a tense exploration into what creates evil in a man, from the inside and out.