“Joker” is an origin story for one of comic book lore’s most iconic villains directed by Todd Phillips and stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a quiet, helpless, rundown citizen of Gotham City circa 1981. Arthur lives with and takes care of his elderly mother Penny, played by Frances Conroy and idolizes his favorite late-night talk show host Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro. Zazie Beetz and Brett Cullen join the cast as Arthur’s neighbor and Thomas Wayne respectively, but the film is completely focused on Arthur from start to finish.
The first thing that needs to be mentioned when talking about this movie is Phoenix’s performance as Arthur/Joker. His portrayal of the character borrows small elements of past incarnations, but it is still completely his own and everything from his laugh to his smile is original. The movie wants you to sympathize with Arthur but as the film progresses, you start questioning why you’re pulling for him and Phoenix’s performance is what makes that work. Phillips’ dialogue is a little on the nose and clunky from time to time, but it doesn’t matter because Phoenix delivers every line of this movie in a heartbreaking, chilling or funny way that sticks. Everyone in the cast does a great job but their characters are used sparingly and are there to present Arthur with tragedy, hope or humiliation as the story progresses.
The Gotham City setting is also well-realized. There aren’t a lot of easter eggs or references filling the frame for fans to look for in this movie, but Phillips does remind us every now and then that we’re in Gotham and what is to come. Gotham’s primary role in this movie is to show us how tough life has become for Arthur and others like him. Poverty is sweeping across the city and on top of that, the poor state of mental health care is making things even more difficult for Gotham’s least fortunate. It’s made clear that Arthur suffers from mental illness himself and as social systems begin to fall apart around him and he encounters more and more of the city’s brutality, he starts down the dark path to the character we all know and love.
Possibly the most moving aspect of “Joker” is that Arthur Fleck is not unlike many people that we know and interact with all the time. He wasn’t born as the murderous arch enemy of Batman, something made that him that way. He was just a shy, quiet man that needed help and when the world not only refused to help him but chose to take advantage of him, he became driven to do horrible things and become a completely new person. The point of this film is to ask, ‘What makes a person snap?’ And even points the finger at us in a way for failing to take care of people in our society who need it the most. Phoenix’s performance alone is the worth the price of admission, but you’re also left with questions after you leave the theater and its always a plus when a movie sticks in your head and makes you think. Phoenix is almost certainly looking at an Oscar nomination after this so if you’re a comic book fan or just a fan of good movies, I’d find the time to check it out.
Griffin’s score 9/10
Copyright 2019 Humble Roots, LLC. All Rights Reserved.