Joker is a wild card

jokerposterJoker (2019)
R: For strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images | 2h 1min | Crime, Drama, Thriller

Synopsis: Joker centers around an origin of the iconic arch nemesis and is an original, standalone story not seen before on the big screen. Todd Phillips’ exploration of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man disregarded by society, is not only a gritty character study, but also a broader cautionary tale.

Review: I say that JOKER is a wild card because it can play in several different ways. The easiest and expected way is as an origin story for Batman’s most iconic and recognizable nemesis. Little is known of the villain we love to hate other than what we see with him as an adult dishing terror on Gotham City. Everyone has a starting point though. Something that makes him tick or as in this case come unhinged. So for DC fans this is a powerful story to fill in the gaps. But it also plays in a more conventional way and the one I want to focus on here.

This is the story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) a young man who was told he was put on this earth to bring laughter and joy to the world. And he tried. He did his best to keep up his end of the deal. But he constantly found himself discarded by a Gotham City that was itself spiraling out of control. When he loses his job as a clown performer and finds out some disturbing facts about his childhood something flicks in Fleck’s head.  He then begins his metamorphosis into the city’s most ruthless, underworld leader. There are many moments in this that blur the lines between reality and fantasy. It is a beautifully shot film and one to be studied for the cinematography alone. And of course Phoenix is fantastic.

Even though we know about the Joker’s history it is easy to still feel bad for Arthur and even – dare I say – side with him on some personal level. Watching the film I had to admit I have more in common with him than the caped crusader. I have no idea what it is like to grow up in a family of privilege. To live in a gated mansion with everything in the world at your disposal; only to see your parents murdered in cold blood right before you. But I know what it feels like to be bullied for being different. To feel like each day is a struggle to be heard and understood. Arthur wants more than anything to be a stand-up comic. But guys like Fleck are mainly laughed at and not with. He struggles with mental illness and the film does a not so subtle job of pointing out how society and government programs offer very little in the way of help.

None of this is an excuse for his actions of course! We all have hard decisions to make and most of us are able to navigate the waters of polite society without becoming a psychotic killer. I bring it up only because I believe the film’s creators wanted these elements to be seen. Writer/Director Todd Phillips tries hard to show us the man more than the legend. The movie could have been called Arthur and been just as powerful and riveting. Phoenix’s performance would have been just as mesmerizing without the moniker of Joker hanging over it. In fact we don’t really even see the Joker. It is an origin story but not in the way we are used to. This isn’t a man born with powers or special abilities who had to learn to adapt. This is a guy next door story. We pass a hundred Fleck’s everyday on the street.

Joker is easily the most authentic of any of the DC films. I almost don’t want to put it in that universe. Fans of the comics need this film as much as anyone though and therefore it can’t remove itself from the world it was created. It is a brutal story though and the R rating is no joke. Even if you have watched the Dark Knight Trilogy with your kids this is not one to drag them to. There is very little action but lots of adult dialogue, themes, and gruesome violence. So be a good parent.