Co-writer Todd Phillips (Old School, The Hangover, War Dogs) directs this character study and origin story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), who after being rejected by society becomes Joker, Batman's future archnemesis. (121 min.)
- Photos Courtesy Of Bron Studios
- DESCENT INTO MADNESS After being rejected by society, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) becomes Joker, Batman's future archnemesis, in this dark and disturbing origin story.
Glen Like a mirror on contemporary society, Joker reflects our problems back to us—the widening gap between the haves and have-nots, paternalistic politician-"saviors" who believe they know best for the "misguided" underclass, and the dismantling of the social safety net by a government that abandons its marginalized. It's a dark and depressing film, and it reminds me of the old saying, "Society gets the criminal it deserves." In Joker, I'll also add that society gets the politicians it deserves. Gotham is in the middle of a garbage strike (think NYC in 1968, though the cars in the film make the setting closer to the late-'70s). The city's on edge, and Arthur Fleck and his mother Penny Fleck are barely hanging on in their rundown apartment. Arthur makes a living as a party clown, and early on we see he's the object of ridicule—a man who can't get respect in a society that's abandoned civility. In the beginning, the violence that occurs is perpetrated against Fleck, not by him. He's clearly had a difficult life, and he's surviving thanks to social services providing him with the medication he needs to stay sane ... until his services are cut. You can see where this is going. The film sympathizes with Fleck, a character with a vibe similar to Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976) who like Howard Beale in Network (1976) has a meltdown. Remember? He's mad as hell and he's not going to take this anymore! It's a creepy, disturbing, and bleak ride that's probably not for everyone.
Anna This movie is a dark descent into Fleck's madness, the scale of which cloaks over Gotham like a dark, wet sheet as both he and the city spiral down. As you mentioned, it's ripe with parallels to society today—painting a dismal portrait of the state of things. Phoenix is by all accounts a chameleon, his transformation into characters is jaw-droppingly good, and Joker may be his best yet. In Arthur he creates a character that you pity and in Joker one that you hate, and yet the two are one in the same. Early on, we see Arthur in a weekly meeting with his social worker, answering the same questions he does every week, pleading for more medication. When the social worker protests that surely the seven meds he's on already must be doing something, Arthur exhaustedly rubs his face and says he just doesn't want to feel bad any longer. It's heartbreaking; the man is clearly so very broken in the beginning, and then Arthur learns even more about his own past—enough to send him along the path to his destiny as Joker. He dreams of being a stand-up comedian, having a girlfriend, and taking care of his mother, but his reality and delusions are murky and cruel; he can't trust his own mind, let alone anyone around him. I was so impressed with this film. Phoenix's performance here is going to stick with me for a long time.
Glen Phoenix is amazing here. I understand he lost 52 pounds for the role, and it shows in his emaciated frame. We often see him contorting himself into a painfully twisted wraith. It almost seems like he's developing a hunchback, though that may be part of his body acting—I wasn't sure. Fleck suffers from an affliction that causes him to laugh uncontrollably in the wrong situations, and Phoenix's laughter is more like a convulsion wracking his body. It's a fully immersed and wholly committed performance. Fleck's fantasy is to appear on Live with Murray Franklin, an evening talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), in a side plot that cinephiles will recognize as lifted from The King of Comedy (1982)—which starred De Niro as unsuccessful stand-up comic Rupert Pupkin, who kidnaps his comedy idol, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). This is clearly a film made by a film lover, and the touchstones to other films are abundant. Some might argue that these references makes Joker derivative, but I see it as homage. Future Batman's father, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), is a stand-in for all the paternalistic politicians who see the poor and downtrodden as losers who need to be helped through tough love, and anyone who knows Bruce Wayne's backstory won't be surprised at what befalls his parents. Though not tied to any of the other Batman films, Joker works as the set-up to Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy: Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). So many of Joker's memorable moments keep popping into my head as I think about the film—deep, dark, disturbing moments. I loved it.
- Photos Courtesy Of Bron Studios
- TURN THAT FROWN UPSIDE DOWN Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix, left) meets the young Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson) for the first time through the gate at Wayne Mansion.
Anna The movie definitely tips its hat to a bunch of films, which I find a lot of fun. The Bickle/Taxi Driver vibe is especially strong in Arthur, and having De Niro share the screen is a cool way to honor the characters' similarities. Thomas Wayne soon becomes the object of Arthur's fascination and then scorn after he discovers what he thinks is a connection between them. He also dotes on his mother, somewhat begrudgingly, and to say the two have an odd mother-son dynamic is understated. Take a bath on your own, mom! We soon learn that Penny herself has been hiding some dark secrets, ones that may explain a lot of Arthur's psychological issues. It's darkness all around. How did the madman become the menace? Why, he was systematically broken down by a society that doesn't care for the poor or mentally ill, uncared for, and unnoticed. Menace seems to be his only chance at getting noticed, and Arthur's transformation into Joker gets the attention of Gotham. In fact, it changes the scene altogether, and his crooked smile becomes the battle symbol of the have-nots. I can't say it enough—I thought this was great. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I loved this deep dive into the origin of Joker. Maybe don't take the kids, but definitely see it in the theater if you have any interest in it at all. Δ
Split Screen is written by Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and his wife, Anna. Comment at email@example.com.