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“That was dark,” was the first thought that came to my head when the end credits of Todd Phillips’ adaption of the iconic DC Universe villain, the Joker rolled.
In Phillips’ film “Joker” (2019), gives the Joker’s (real name Arthur Fleck) origin story a more realistic feel which is wonderfully portrayed by actor Joaquin Phoenix.
I have watched many people portray the Clown Prince of Crime live-action, but Phoenix’s Joker had to be one of my favorites, coming in second to the late-Heath Ledger’s brilliant and disturbing performance in “The Dark Knight” (2008).
It is important to note that this version of Joker is not for the faint of heart.
Taking a realistic approach to the Arthur Fleck/ Joker backstory, the film deals with gun violence and mental illness, two very real and sensitive subjects that may be disturbing for some audiences.
Immediately as the film starts you can tell that Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is one of those characters that can’t catch a break which is unsurprisingly true when throughout the entire movie a series of unfortunate events start to pile on him until he completely snaps.
It all begins in the very first scene when Arthur is doing his job, as a rent-a-clown holding a promotional sign for a store, when a group of kids runs up on him, steal the sign and take off running forcing Arthur to pursue them.
This particular scene is briefly comedic because as he is running, his huge clown shoes are slapping against the pavement making him look completely ridiculous. However, the mood changes quickly when he finally catches up to them, and they are waiting for him and basically—to put in the simplest terms… beat the crap out of him.
Arthur then speaks to his social worker whom he speaks to every week and she asks him generic questions not bothering at all to take any interest in what he is actually saying, which he later confronts her about.
“You don’t listen, do you? You just ask the same questions every week. ‘How’s your job?’ ‘Are you having any negative thoughts?’ All I have are negative thoughts,” he tells her.
He goes back to work, where his co-workers are making fun of him but one. Randall (Glenn Fleshler) gives him a gun so he can protect himself on the streets of Gotham City, telling Arthur he can pay him back for it later.
Later, at one of his work gigs at a children’s hospital, Arthur is entertaining the children dancing and singing “If You’re Happy and You Know It” when the gun falls out of his costume, sliding on to the floor in front of the children. This incident leads to him being fired from his job over a payphone.
Taking the subway home from and he is on the bus with three drunk corporate men who work for Thomas Wayne’s (Brett Cullen), who is a huge business and political figure at this time, and another young lady.
The three drunk businessmen begin to harass the young woman and due to a condition where he laughs uncontrollably during inappropriate times, Arthur begins to laugh. The young woman gets up and moves to a different part of the train, leaving the drunkards alone with Arthur.
Helplessly continuing to laugh, Arthur is jumped by the drunks on the subway, but having enough of the abuse, he pulls out his gun and opens fire on all three of them—killing them.
These are the first murders that Arthur Fleck commits in the film which will be followed by many more.
I want to point out that after the murder of these three businessmen, Thomas Wayne, the mayoral hopeful of Gotham City goes on television to talk about the men who worked for him but barely knew.
This particular scene with Thomas Wayne discussing the murders is why Gotham becomes the chaotic mess it does. To sum up Wayne’s interview, he blames the murders on what he believes are people who are not rich and are jealous because they are not wealthy, so essentially, they are all clowns.
That had to be the biggest load of B.S. I had heard.
The typical system of rich people pretending they know what the people they are supposed to be serving want and then try to shove what they think is best for the middle and low classes of society down their throats. Ultimately, doing the complete opposite and cutting things that people need like the funding for free counseling for people like Arthur. Then proceed to be confused as to why the people are angry because they feel the lower classes should be grateful.
The people of Gotham are enraged after this and decide to riot and not conform, taking on clown masks because they feel like the clown that killed these “reputable men” in the subway is a hero.
Jobless, Arthur tries standup unsuccessfully, and someone takes a video of his performance sending it to a late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Murray airs the video of Arthur and makes fun of him but later invites him on the show where Arthur will make his official debut as Joker.
The unfortunate events begin to snowball as Arthur who lives with his mother Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy), who he takes care of and also has a mental illness, used to work for Thomas Wayne, whom she believes she had a relationship with and is Arthur’s father.
Arthur at first is in disbelief at the revelation of his paternity but then finds out Wayne is not his father; he is adopted, and his “mother” physically abused him which is the reason behind his uncontrollable laughter. Sick of everything, he kills his mother while she is in the hospital and also murders his coworker.
When he makes it onto the Murray Franklin show, he wants to be introduced as Joker and he decides to call out everyone who has been horrible to him and others like him.
“Have you seen what it’s like out there, Murray? Do you ever actually leave the studio? Everybody just yells and screams at each other. Nobody’s civil anymore. Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy. You think men like Thomas Wayne ever think what it’s like to be someone like me? To be somebody but themselves? They don’t. They think that we’ll just sit there and take it, like good little boys! That we won’t werewolf and go wild!”
At the end, Arthur is completely unhinged and basking in the chaos that he has created as a cop tells him: “The whole city is on fire because of you” to which Arthur responds: “I know, isn’t it beautiful,” after being arrested for admitting to the murders of the three men on the train and committing another one on live television.
During the closing scenes, I could not help but notice that Joaquin Phoenix in his Joker costume and makeup gave off the uncanny essence of Joker. I could not stop looking at him because he embodied Joker very well to a point where it was unsettling. However, I believe that was the goal—to make this fictional criminal mastermind feel real.
As said before, this film deals with very real issues. It makes you think about how you treat others and realize that there are people out there who are struggling and feel just like Arthur.
I have seen and heard some opinions from other people who thought the film glorified gun violence, how it did not properly portray mental illnesses and how it was so unsettling that they had to exit the theater.
I can see how some people might feel uncomfortable around some situations in the film, but we cannot forget that situations like some of the ones portrayed in the film do happen in life and they are uncomfortable.
The film does raise awareness of mental illnesses and the stigma around them. Multiple people called Arthur, his mother and other Arkham State Hospital (a psychiatric hospital) patients crazy which is a horrible term to use for people who cannot help their mental conditions.
Although I have to agree that the portrayal of mental illness in the film was not flawless and, in some scenes, it did make it seem like mental illnesses are why people are violent. However, it did leave me with a different perspective on mental illness as a whole especially when the camera panned to the notebook Arthur carries around filled with his extremely depressive thoughts and jokes and one entry he writes reads: “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”
Although for Arthur, his violence, I believe, derives from how he was treated on a daily basis which is another lesson for audiences to be kind to others because you never know what they might be going through.
So, is Joker (2019) worth a watch? —Yes.
Realistic, sad, dark but engaging and creative. Although MANY of the things he does are wrong, witnessing the amount of misfortune and trauma he experiences you can’t help but feel sympathetic, maybe even empathetic, towards Arthur.
Of course, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea but if you are a DC fan you may appreciate this version of the Dark Knight’s biggest foe.
This Joker origin story makes him seem more human and Joaquin Phoenix really makes the character his own as the Joker laugh was good and got creepier as the movie went along. Although I still have to say it does not hold a candle to the flawless laughs of Mark Hamill or Cesar Romero.
All in all, you’ll either love it or hate it coming out, but an open mind is necessary going in.
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