SPOILER WARNING – IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN JOKER YET, BE WARNED, THERE ARE SPOILERS BELOW!
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that stays with you on first viewing. It haunts your thoughts for weeks and you can’t wait to see it again. Tempted to pay the ticket price for a second viewing or watching the Amazon listing for a due date for the Blu-ray release.
Joker is one such film. Written and directed by Todd Phillips, Joker tells the story of how struggling stand up comic Arthur Fleck transforms into the ‘clown prince of crime’. Told in a brutal, 1970’s style movie, this is not your typical superhero tale. There are no caped crusaders, men of steel or avengers to lighten the mood. This is a modern approach to a character piece. Modern, as I’ll discuss here, as it openly shows the descent of a man into madness, without the disguise of metaphor.
Some reviewers have, much like internet trolls, jumped on a lazy bandwagon of deriding the movie for its violence. Yet, if they’d paid attention during the previous movie versions of the character, the violence should come as no shock. I’ll discuss as well, by taking a brief look at Jack Nicholson’s and Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the character in Batman (1989) and The Dark Knight (2008) respectively. I’d like to make it clear that my not discussing Jared Leto’s portrayal in Suicide Squad (2016) does not mean that I don’t rate his performance. On the contrary, I loved what he did with the character. However, in that film he wasn’t the main antagonist and wasn’t given room to expand the character in the way the others did. If rumours are true, then there is a great deal more Joker left on the cutting room floor from that movie, which would have elevated the story.
We start in 1989, when Warner Bros. and Tim Burton brought us Batman. Easily the best and most honest superhero movie since Richard Donner’s Superman(1978). Honest, in that it was made as a movie first and a superhero story second. In Batman, Jack Nicholson plays the Joker. We see him as an unappreciated mobster Jack Napier, everyone around him already thinking that he’s ‘unhinged’. One fateful day he’s in a chemical factory, stood dangerously close to a large vat of toxic goo. During a botched job, he’s shot through the cheeks and Batman turns up to apprehend him. Jack falls into the vat and Batman can’t save him. He’s washed out of the chemicals, his skin bleached white. A trip to a back-street plastic surgeon leaves his face with a permanent grin. In his madness he believes that Batman ‘made him’. The irony, and one of the highly contentious points in the movie, is that in his early days, it was Jack who shot Bruce Wayne’s parents in front of him and therefore he ‘created’ Batman.
The points I’d like to note here are that Joker’s madness is represented by physical transformation – his descent into full madness and the birth of Joker come about due to his skin being bleached and his facial scars (he was portrayed as being a very vain man prior to this, a trait unique to this movie portrayal). Both these things are out of his control, i.e. he doesn’t choose to be bleached or have a permanent grin. Also note, that in this movie, Joker electrocutes a man until he’s burnt to the bone, tries to kill the entire population of Gotham City using chemical weapons and attempts to improve the faces of beautiful women by spraying them with acid. All of which is, you could say, quite violent.
Why is it, that the second movie in a superhero run seems to turn out to be better than the first? That isn’t to say that the first movie wasn’t great, it’s just that the second is often even better. Take Batman Returns (1992), Spiderman 2 (2004) or X-Men 2 (2003). Whether it’s because the character’s are already established, the origin story already told or that the director’s are trusted with the property to do their own thing. What ever the cause, in 2008 Christopher Nolan directed The Dark Knight, the sequel to his 2005 film Batman Begins.
Heath Ledger took the stage for his Oscar winning role as Joker. An amazing performance combining an excellent script by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan and the physical mannerisms of Ledger. This Joker is unpredictable and full of ticks and nuances. Again, his face is physically scarred, the grin permanently etched into his cheeks. This time, though, it’s not as clean cut (literally). The grin is jagged, there has been no plastic surgeon to make it more presentable. Much like Burton’s film, these scars are a metaphor for the Joker’s descent into madness, but unlike that movie, we are never told how the scars were created. Three times the Joker asks one of his victims ‘how did I get these scars’ and each time he gives a different explanation. In the 80’s we knew where and when he got his scars, so we had a level of safety. Safety in that we can explain why this man has ‘gone mad’ and is killing people. But now, in the 21st century, Nolan and Ledger don’t want us to feel safe. They don’t want us to know why and how Joker came to be the killer that he is. They want us to fear him. Note again the violoence, this Joker kills a man by smashing a pencil through his eye and he tries to blow up two whole ferry loads (literally) of Gotham citizens. He also tries to blow up two main characters by strapping them to barrels of explosives, leaving one with half a face and the main love interest dead.
So here we are, in 2019 and Joaquin Phoenix is playing Joker in Todd Phillips new movie. So much has been and will be said about this film. I’m not here to review it or to sell it’s merits, there are far better writers who have done that.
I’m here to share what has stayed with me from that one viewing at the cinema. This film has haunted me and stayed in my thoughts and made me think about its themes and how it was made. That is the sign of a great movie.
I’ll also lay it on the table now – I am a life long Batman fan. I don’t read a lot of the comics, but ever since I watched repeats (re-runs) of Adam West and Burt Ward as a child, I’ve been hooked.
The first thing that struck me was how the movie adopts a very modern attitude to mental health, in that I believe it doesn’t try to hide it behind metaphor. It doesn’t make it ‘safe’. Arthur Fleck doesn’t have bleached skin or scarred cheeks. There isn’t a precise moment when we witness him becoming scarred, so that we can say ‘that was the moment that he lost his mind’ or ‘that is the cause of his madness’. With Nicholson, we watched it happen as he fell into the vat. With Ledger we saw the resulting scars and hypothesised on three possible causes. But in this movie, there is no hiding behind physical scars, the damage is mental and that is made very clear. I say this is a modern approach, as attitudes to mental health, especially around men, have changed dramatically. We’re now encouraged to talk about it, to seek help. It’s now socially acceptable (or it should be) for a man to admit that he has ‘issues’. So here, in this movie, it’s laid bare – Arthur becomes Joker over time, through a process of events and abuse, both physical and psychological. We watch as the people and establishments that should protect and support him, namely his mother and his social worker, fail him. It doesn’t happen in one dramatic set piece; it happens gradually and takes the audience on a journey. The journey isn’t smooth or pleasant. Phillip’s uses cinema at its best to take us on the journey. Just as we think Arthur is succeeding in life with a new job and new girlfriend, we find out in a scene in his neighbour’s apartment which is both frightening and revealing, that it’s all his delusions. As the story unfolds, so does his sanity. The revelations about his ‘mother’, his upbringing and eventually his ‘illness’ are told in a way that leads us on a path of foreboding. There is no physical metaphor to hide the mental health issues here, as in the previous two movies. Its laid bare and it’s ugly. I will give one concession to the idea that his physical ‘scarring’ transforms him. In the closing scenes, when Joker is rescued from the Police car and his make-up is fading, he takes his own blood and paints his grin on his face. It’s a disgusting, horrible, unnerving grin.
This movie would be nothing without Phoenix in the lead role. What he does that is so astonishing, is that he portrays the transformation to Joker through his body. His physical performance is incredible. He starts off as a skinny, hunched, awkward man and changes into a dancing, confident, dangerous killer. The most unnerving element of this Joker, is that unlike the previous two who descended into madness as a result of physical trauma, this one accepts his madness and chooses to be a killer. He isn’t bleached, he purposely covers his face in white make up. He could take his medicine, but he prefers not to. He laughs at death, because he finds it funny.
Let me try to make the point absolutely clear – he chooses the madness.
I think that’s why this movie unnerves us.
As a Batman fan, I was unsure of the inclusion of a young Bruce Wayne and his parents in this film. Then my wife made an excellent point – people will want to know how this story fits into the Batman timeline. She’s right. Joker is nothing without Batman. The character would literally not exist without him. Once I accepted that, I started to realise the way in which this movie may have just subverted the traditional Batman – Joker dynamic. Joker has always been the arch-nemesis of Batman, the thorn in his side. Batman was forever the protagonist of the story and Joker the antagonist. In Batman (1989), Joker literally killed Bruce Wayne’s parents and therefore set him off on a path to become Batman. In Joker, it’s a little more subtle. Interestingly, it portrays Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father, as a bit of a dick. He’s a corporate millionaire who doesn’t appear to care for the common man. Two of his employees attack Arthur, when he stands up to defend a female passenger, who is victim to the two men’s harassment and become his first victims. Thomas becomes the focus of the uprising movement, seen as the villain of the movie. During the final riot, where Joker is rescued, Bruce and his parents are leaving the cinema. Knowing my Batman lore, the sight of a cinema showing a Zorro movie sent shivers down my spine. One of the protestors, dressed in a clown mask, kills Bruce’s parents. Joker has indirectly killed Bruce’s parents. This is where it becomes interesting in the context of the bigger Batman story. Because now, Joker is the protagonist and Bruce is the son of the antagonist. He will grow to know that Joker caused his parent’s deaths. There is now a role reversal – no longer is it ‘Joker verses Batman’. Now, it must be ‘Batman verses Joker’. No longer is the Joker a result or reaction to, or arch-nemesis of, Batman. Batman is now the result or reaction to, or arch-nemesis of Joker.
That potentially puts us on the side of Joker. How comfortable are you with that?
Should you see Joker? Of course you should. Will you ‘like’ it? I don’t know. All I do know is that you must make your own mind up about it. Do not be forced into an opinion based on a lazy review, this film won’t insult your intelligence like most journalists try to. It’s been heavily criticised for its violence, but look back at the other Batman movies referred to here and it should be no surprise that it is violent. I think the violence is shocking in Joker, as violence in movies should be. If violence isn’t shocking in movies, then is it glamorised or sanitised? Is someone is shot dead, stabbed, punched or ripped in half, then we should be shocked by it. Because if we’re not, and I know we usually aren’t, then we have a problem. I could count the number of times that I’ve been genuinely shocked by onscreen violence on two hands. When I have been, it’s been at times when the violence is presented raw. There’s a seen in Better Call Saul, when Chuck faints in a print shop, falls and bangs his head on a counter top. This was more shocking than most horror or crime movie violence. Why? Because of the way it was presented. The violence in Joker isn’t ‘nice’, it isn’t Avengers, where they fight for hours and come out unscathed. (Not a dig at Avengers). The style of the movie is a call back to early Scorsese, like Taxi Driver (1976). I believe it also invokes more modern films, such as David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) and Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000). Fight Club shares some of the themes of emasculation and the cinematic language used to portray the split personality of the Narrator is reflected in Joker, when its revealed that he’s been delusional. American Psycho amplifies this idea, to the point that by the end of the film, the viewer is left questioning what, if any of the movie’s events, were real or in the mind of Patrick Bateman. Both these films are violent and deal with the mental health of the male leads. They are also both derisive and both brilliant.