Joker is an honorable homage to the past and a powerful premonition of the future

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The first true line of dialogue in Joker is “is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?”

Spoken from the lips of a man at a therapy session who will later become the clown in the titular role. 

It’s a scene that couldn’t help but make me stop and go wow that was good. 

The movie seemed to be full of scenes like that. 

From the first trailer of Todd Phillip’s dark villain origin story, one could tell that the film was going to be a different approach to the mass amount of comic book movies made today. Unlike the juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, DC has decided to stray away from an entire connected world of films. Instead, they’re allowing themselves to take the iconic figures they own and do with them what they please, without worrying about how that affects the canon of other films.

This has allowed for the gritty birth of Joker. It’s a film that took a prolific character with a plethora of interpretations—through limited uniform backstory— and gave the world a new insight of familiar face’s past. 

It stars a career-best Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill man living with his mother in Gotham City (aka fictional NYC), as he struggles to make it as a comedian. Even without the prior knowledge of Batman lore, (I personally have never read a DC comic book and have only ever seen Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight) the combined power of pop culture and context clues from the movie, it’s evident that Fleck is already a deteriorating man with a limited amount of sanity. 

It’s not a question of if Arthur Fleck will become the joker but how and when his complete spiral into feral insanity will come about. 

The time period of the film is never stated, but all signs point to somewhere in the 1970s. Not only is the decade a factor, but Joker evokes the feeling of films of the ‘70s too. It has the city driven insanity of Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver and the murderous, criminal insanity of Stanley Kubrik’s A Clockwork Orange. In so many ways, Joker feels like a grand movie from another time. 

Be it the blustering rainy winds outside, the departure from my usual movie theatre, or perhaps just the strange atmosphere of the movie itself, while watching Joker I had an overwhelming feeling of ‘something is wrong’ and ‘I feel out of place.’

Upon further research, I found an interview where Phoenix states he attempted to portray a character audiences could not identify with. And, from someone whos seen the film, that’s so incredibly true in a myriad of ways.

A character like Arthur is offbeat, obscure, and psychotic. He’s like a twisted Pablo Picasso painting; you can appreciate the beauty and complexity of it, but you can’t understand it, and the longer you stare the more uncomfortable you become. 

Though the joker is a fatally irreverent creation, he’s a terribly well written one, and an even more terrifically well acted one. Joaquin Phoenix is ferociously fantastic. He disappears into the role so deeply that he’s physically and psychologically unrecognizable. If Rami Malek was given the Oscar for almost three hours of lip-syncing last year, there’s no way the academy can pass over Phoenix for an award for best actor. 

As wonderful as the character of Arthur was, it felt like he was the only developed, genuine role in the entire movie. His mentally ill mother (Frances Conroy,) his talk show idol Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro,) or nemesis and corrupt businessman Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) were all key players in the story, but they were incredibly one dimensional and barely fleshed out as people. They were there for Arthur to react to, and nothing more. This may have been a purposeful choice, a decision made to keep the focus solely on Arthur, but it’s a point worth mentioning nonetheless. 

Is my analyzation of the function of each character’s role overkill? Maybe. But the entire process of watching the movie made me feel like a film student. There were some aspects of the movie just too well done in execution to not take a step back and appreciate. 

The soundtrack was insane, metaphorically and literally. When a movie is able to properly fit songs into the plot without them feeling forced or noticeably out of place, it’s so incredibly impressive. Joker is a prime example of how songs can elevate the narrative and feel integral. The original score was beautiful and eerie, much like the rest of the film. 

The entire structure of the film, execution of individual scenes, and pacing of the movie was just so, so exceptional. There were certain scenes in the movie that I could just tell would be talked about for many many years. 

The writing was commendable as well. Arthur has a creepy, disturbing therapy/joke journal he carries around for a large majority of the film. There’s a shot that zooms over it and in a sprawled madman’s writing the line “the worst part about having a mental illness is that people want you to pretend that you don’t.” 

The movie wasn’t all just for show, though. It carried a greater message mixed in with the psycho laughter. Arthur is an inexcusable, insane murderer. But he wasn’t always a killer; he was always mentally ill. The therapy sessions he attends are cut by the government, and mayoral candidate and businessman Thomas Wayne refers to those underprivileged in the city, those like Arthur, as clowns.

Arthur’s mental setback coupled with unfair treatment by the entire world around him are the catalyst for his unraveling and turn towards villainy. While the audience can’t defend his actions, they can wonder if society treated those at the social bottom with more respect and care if the events transpired in the film would even happen. 

Joker can’t help but feel like a dark hyperbolic metaphor for how we treat those with mental illness and of lesser financial status in the world today.

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