‘Joker’ creates a compelling, dark origin story

Brian Lang

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Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (2019)

For 50 years, Batman has been a hit on the big screen. He’s faced countless enemies along the way, but his biggest foe has always been the Joker. Over the years, the Joker has been played by many talented actors, with Heath Ledger giving arguably the best performance. Now there’s a new Joker in town, and his origin story might not be what you expect.

“Joker” isn’t your normal superhero movie. It’s a character study of one of pop culture’s greatest villains. Since he was a little boy, Arthur Fleck has always been told to smile, no matter how hard life gets. He’s recently been released from a psych hospital with a load of medications to keep him stable enough to work as a clown. He lives in a shabby apartment with his aging mother who’s determined to get her former employer, the wealthy Thomas Wayne, to send aid and get them out of the slums. 

Arthur tries to live a normal and productive life, taking his medications and visiting a social worker weekly to try to conform to everyone else, but he can’t seem to get it right. His biggest struggle is controlling his compulsive need to laugh. It’s a high shrieking cackle that seems to bubble up at the most inopportune times, making Arthur a target for bullying and driving away any potential friends. 

This problem seems to plague Arthur continually as he flounders in his condition, reaching out to anyone around him for support. He tries to connect with his neighbors, social worker, strangers, and coworkers, for a sense of social connection and a chance to keep him grounded in reality, but he can never grasp onto anyone. 

When some Wall Street brokers on a subway harass Arthur because of his laugh, he snaps. Gunshots ring in the empty train car and Arthur finally feels a connection to the world around him. Why try to conform when it’s so much easier to fight the system?

This is the main question of the film and the themes of “the system” and its many failings come across strongly throughout “Joker.” Gotham City is depicted as a grimy, “every man for himself” trash heap that keeps people like Arthur pushed down and tucked away from normal society and he’s tired of putting up with it.

“Joker” focuses on Arthur’s path to madness, and since the audience can envision the ending of the film even before taking a seat, the most important parts of the movie are focused on how anyone can transform into someone as evil as the Joker. 

This transition is led by the phenomenal acting of Joaquin Phoenix, an actor who’s never been one to shy away from putting his whole being into a performance. His gaunt frame and jet-black hair lend him a sense of wildness from the start, and he methodically works to build on that base, adding tics, gestures, and facial expressions to his character as he metamorphosizes into his final, green-haired form. 

Although he plays Arthur as slightly unhinged from the start, Phoenix leaves plenty of room to allow other emotions in as well. He oscillates from hopeful, angry, mournful and giddy throughout “Joker” and shows how these emotions affect his character’s development. If it’s nothing else, “Joker” is Phoenix’s ride to critical acclaim. 

The cinematography also makes this movie stand out. Director Todd Phillips revels in showing the garbage and grittiness of the city as he plays with shadows and light. He keeps the world around Arthur dim and dirty but paints the normal world that Arthur wants to join as bright and cheery. It makes the audience want Arthur to make it out of the dirt, so at least we’ll get something nicer to look at too. 

The only real problem of “Joker” is that it has fallen into its own trap of a weak plot. Since its ending is a foregone conclusion from the start, Phillips put himself into a box of showing only Arthur’s descent into madness which is fascinating to watch, but the changes are slight and slow. He masterfully builds tension but keeps the payoff short and a little unsatisfying at the end. There was too much philosophizing and not enough action for a movie about a villain this juicy.

“Joker” is a fun film to watch even if it feels brutal at times. Phoenix’s performance is the biggest draw and while the plot is lacking in substance, it makes up for it with nice cinematography. Forget about the Joker that you thought you knew and go introduce yourself to Arthur Fleck.