Premiering this past Friday Oct. 4 director Todd Phillips’ brought us a story of the famous supervillain, “Joker,” starring Joaquin Phoenix, and gave insight of a man who was abused by society and his descent into madness and transformation into the Clown Prince of Crime.
Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a lowly street clown in 1981 Gotham City who lives with his mother while struggling with various mental conditions, as well as a neurological disorder, which causes him to laugh at inappropriate moments throughout the film. We see Fleck try to fit in and lead a normal life, but constant abuse by society and the battle with demons within him take their toll until he dons the identity of The Joker.
Through Fleck’s eyes, we also witness the problems within Gotham itself in the days before Batman, such as unemployment and high crime amongst the poor, while the rich and powerful are seemingly unaffected without even the slightest care.
The film also highlights negative perceptions toward those with mental illness and how they have an impact on what is an already damaged psyche, in Fleck’s case.
Phoenix puts on a wonderful performance as Arthur Fleck, seemingly disappearing into the role and providing a method to the madness that is the Joker. Certain moments, however, may come across as over the top in terms of his acting.
The supporting cast must also be praised for their performances. Robert De Niro plays Murray Franklin, a popular talk show host who plays a pivotal role in Arthur’s downfall and rebirth as the Joker. Brett Cullen plays Thomas Wayne, a prominent Gotham socialite who also interacts with Arthur throughout the story. Thomas is also the father of Bruce Wayne, who appears in the film before his transformation into the superhero, Batman.
Frances Conroy plays Penny Fleck, Arthur’s sickly mother who he provides for. Their relationship is critical to understanding how Fleck begins his descent into madness as the Joker.
Zazie Beetz plays Arthur’s love interest Sophie Dumond and shows the lighter side of Arthur’s psyche before his transformation.
Phillips’ story is certainly a break from the traditional Joker origin story of a criminal thrown in a vat of acid, but it also keeps in line with the idea that everyone has a breaking point, their “one bad day” that can turn them into a completely different person.
The film has already been criticized for its seemingly sympathetic portrayal of the title character, with fears that it may inspire real world violence. Audiences may be assuaged after viewing what Phillips has to offer on screen with the story of Arthur Fleck.
I personally enjoyed how Phillips made the story of the Joker his own and offered his own perspective on the character, highlighting the impact of mental illness on a person’s health and showing how anyone can be driven over the edge given time. However, I also felt that the film could have accomplished this without relying too much on social commentary to beat the audience over the head with this message.
“Joker” is a wonderfully made character study which not only offers a unique take on one of the most infamous villains in all of fiction, but a harrowing reminder that you never know what someone may be dealing with beneath their glowing smile or infectious laughter.
RATING - 4 out of 5 stars.