Rife with faux controversy due to the Dark Knight Rises mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado that had nothing to do with the title character in this film, or from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Director Todd Phillips paints a bleak and disturbingly all too real origin story around the most iconic comic book villain of all time in Joker.
Set in 1981 Gotham City, Arthur Fleck is a man plagued with mental issues who, in a nutshell, is simply trying to exist. He is worn and exhausted and is more skeleton than man, as he lives day to day as an unsuccessful clown-for-hire and an even worse stand-up comedian with his unusual mother in a crummy apartment. His life is dull and depressing, but he finds happiness in watching late night tv comedian Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro a ‘la Johnny Carson).
Arthur’s only dream is to become a stand-up comedian like Murray Franklin. The only problem is he isn’t very funny, nor does he find a lot of things to smile about, which his response is hooking his fingers into his mouth to force him to smile. He laughs, but it looks more like he’s crying. It’s when he’s attacked by three Wall Street bros that he fights back and finds a punchline that everyone takes as a political statement.
There isn’t a lot of violence in this film as Arthur slowly slips deeper into his own psychosis, but when there is, it’s graphic, and almost artistic in a certain way. “I just don’t want to feel so bad anymore,” is a line he whispers that resonates throughout the film, signifying his descent into madness, and starting his path to becoming The Joker.
Joaquin Phoenix is remarkable in the film, diving head first into the role, shedding over 50lbs to give us this frail, but frightening character. He is so captivating that there were scenes in this film where tears were rolling down my eyes because I had forgotten to blink. His portrayal of the title character is so raw and brutal, it feels nothing like Nicholson or Ledger’s portrayal, and it’s absolutely ridiculous to even try to compare.
The film is dark and dirty (mostly due to the trash strike) which makes the experience feel all the more authentic. It clearly takes inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, which Phillips has not hidden his love for, bringing a level of grit that we haven’t seen in films for quite a while. The score’s are haunting and beautiful, bringing more life into seemingly basic scenes.
If anything will come from this film, hopefully it’s talk about mental illness and not something that happened seven years ago. Until then, this movie is a brilliant, and I can understand all the love it received in Toronto.