Joker may have sparked up its fair share of controversy but when you peel back the media hype and moral panic, what is left is one of the greatest films of the decade.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a failed comedian with a multitude of mental health issues living a life of loneliness. Fleck is introduced to us as a sympathetic character. He looks after his mom, takes joy in making a child smile, and is woefully mistreated by the people of Gotham. In one of the first scenes, we see Fleck being beaten up by a group of teens. It’s not a case of creating a contrived backstory that makes us feel sorry for the Joker. The narrative is uncomfortable and deeply upsetting to watch. What we are given is a man who is totally alienated from society.
We later discover that Fleck suffers from an array of mental health issues. In this version of the comic, he suffers from a condition that results in uncontrollable and inappropriate laughter. Phoenix does a remarkable job portraying a man desperately trying to resist and hide his condition. The scenes where he struggles to hold back his laughter are sympathetic and unnerving at the same time.
Fleck’s transformation into the Joker begins when he first feels the thrill of taking the life of another. His victims are a group of unpleasant men who are tormenting a woman on the subway. When Fleck shoots them, he becomes liberated and for the first time, he feels noticed. The deeper the transformation goes, the more liberated Fleck becomes until at last, he is the Joker. This is the story of how an outcast used villainy as a tool to cope with profound loneliness.
As a story, Joker is darker, deeper, and grittier than we have ever seen the Batman villain before. Phoenix’s performance is superb and he gives life to the Joker as a character – as a suffering man. Although our sympathy for Arthur quickly dissolves as he falls further into villainy, Phoenix’s performance keeps us reminded of the fact that the Joker is not a supervillain alien from Outerspace. He is a human being.
Hildur Guðnadóttir’s music score and Lawrence Sher’s cinematography, of course, deserve critical praise. It is the fact that every aspect of the feature is so beautifully put together that raises Joker to a level of astonishing cinema. Ultimately, however, it is Phoenix’s remarkable performance which will make the tale of DC’s favorite villain go down in history.