In the world Arthur Fleck inhabits, gunshots are comparable to cannon blasts — their sound and fury envelop the surroundings with an untamed, ferocious reverberation. It’s startling. It’s frightening. It’s realistic.
It’s apparent director Todd Phillips has sought to uphold an almost slavish devotion to realism. The Joker’s signature cackle has been fashioned into a neurological disorder; more an expression of anguish than maniacal glee. It’s this commitment to realism, and the script’s interpretation of Arthur, that makes Joker such a vivid, engaging, and affecting character study.
When we first meet Arthur, he’s alone in a room full of people, gazing into a mirror, forcing a smile. His only friend is who he sees reflected back. Arthur is lonely and has been throughout his life. He yearns, above all things, for connection. He believes his purpose in life is to bring smiles to faces. That’s why he works as a clown for hire and seeks to become a stand-up comedian.
He just wants to exist, but he was never really here. The people of Gotham City don’t take any notice of people like Arthur. They don’t see him. They don’t understand him. And, more detrimentally, they don’t want to.
However, Arthur doesn’t understand them either. As someone who’s been mired in desolation and isolation since childhood, Arthur doesn’t know how to make meaningful connections with people. He doesn’t understand them as much as they don’t understand him.
Take the scene where Arthur’s in the audience of a comedy club, watching someone perform. He’s taking notes about each joke, but he doesn’t comprehend the punchlines. He forces a laugh at the most inopportune moments, desperately trying to fit in with the giggling crowd.
That moment, among many others, brings to light the invisible yet insurmountable wall that separates Arthur from the rest of the world. It’s devastating.
Arthur’s life is a comedy for those around him… but to him, it’s a tragedy.
Apart from Arthur, the only other three-dimensional character in Joker is Gotham City, and it’s entirely appropriate. Arthur’s descent into depravity mirrors Gotham’s collective downfall. The birth of the Joker is the logical culmination of the city’s shared apathy.
It’s Gotham that takes away his medication, it’s Gotham that puts a gun in his hand, and it’s Gotham that puts his hand on the trigger.
The city’s on the brink of class war; a charged powder keg readying to explode. And Arthur, a man who’s been circling the drain his entire life, gradually goes in and takes Gotham with him.
Now, Gotham burns and Arthur’s the one holding the matches. It’s a vicious cycle… a sadistic joke.
That being said, Arthur is accountable for his actions and the film never condones the things he does. Quite the contrary. While Joaquin Phoenix pulls us in as Arthur, Todd Phillips, the director, actively strives to pull us out at several vital junctures.
He makes it apparent that something is wrong with Arthur in his very being; his core is rotting away.
So while the movie offers a conceivable scenario of how horrible situations compound his mental illness, the choices Arthur makes are his own. Gotham and its citizens exacerbate the situation, but Arthur was already a man with inherent vices.
Phillips conveys to us, in no uncertain terms, that Gotham doesn’t pull the trigger.
This Joker’s scars aren’t conspicuous, because they reside deep within his being, but they are there, and Phillips makes sure we see them, and we see Arthur for what he truly is: a troubled, mentally ill man who went down the wrong path.
Arthur’s descent is envisioned through the stairs he takes every day. Throughout the movie, we only see him ascend them, with weariness and slouched shoulders, all in the bleak, grey, inadequate nighttime lights synonymous with Gotham.
It’s analogous for what his life’s been like: dark, difficult, and desolate.
Towards the end, however, having gone through his baptism of blood, he descends the stairs adorned in full Joker regalia. He’s dancing…. moving with newfound confidence… and it all seems so easy to him.
Arthur is reborn. It’s a cathartic moment. He’s become the master of his own destiny. However, we know better. We’re not meant to cheer him on.
But some undoubtedly did and that’s endlessly fascinating because now the mirror’s no longer in front of Arthur, Phillips holds it firmly in front of us. And we choose what we want to see and how we want to reflect on events unfolding in front of us.
Phoenix ensures Arthur walks the line between sympathy and horror. Moreover, Phillips, particularly through sparse yet judicious use of comedy, further blurs that line, constantly questioning the viewer.
Arthur has a weak grasp on comedy, and we never share a comedic moment with him (a situation or a joke that both audience and Arthur find humour in). When that moment does come, courtesy of an out-of-reach door latch, it’s horrifying, yet we laugh, and Arthur, for the first time, shares in the humour. The lines keep getting blurred.
This entire movie is open to interpretation. We get to decide whether Arthur was a man with delusions of grandeur or a man who, through tragedy and trauma, had found the formula for it.
There are signs sprinkled throughout the movie that lends credence to either interpretation. It’s like the Joker once said in The Killing Joke: “if I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”
Joker is a profoundly affecting and evocative film, destined to linger long in the minds of those who see it. It’s a movie that inspires dialogue, both within us and the people around us. The film takes aim at our collective apathy, our lack of compassion and our readiness to ridicule. It puts a mirror to our society and asks us to introspect.
There’s so much to unpack within Joker’s 122-minutes. It demands a repeat viewing. Although that may not be agreeable to everyone, which is understandable. And single-handedly carrying this whole endeavour, like Atlas on steroids, is Joaquin Phoenix. Words such as ‘stellar,’ ‘wonderful,’ and ‘incredible’ can’t do justice to what Phoenix achieves here. Perhaps ‘transcendent’ comes close, but it’s a performance one has to see to truly believe.
It’s staggering work, a sweeping symphony of physicality, vulnerability, trepidation, melancholy, comedy, and tragedy. Every facial tick, every shrug, every nuance is all part of Phoenix’s meticulously crafted mosaic. Joaquin Phoenix is Geppetto, and Arthur Fleck his Pinocchio — Phoenix truly brings Arthur to life.
One bad day, that’s all it takes. And for someone like Arthur, who’s had an unfair share of bad days, that one bad day was positively wretched.
A comedian died, but a Joker was born.
Images © Warner Bros. Entertainment & DC Comics, including fan-art by Nikolay Mochkin.