Todd Phillip’s “Joker” is a masterful portrait of a man struggling with mental health and his descent into madness as the world around him collapses.
Phillip’s resurrection of 1970s/80s New York as Gotham City in the film was the perfect backdrop for this story. Aside from nailing the setting, Joaquin Phoenix is probably the only actor who could have brought the depth and high-level of insanity to the main character, Arthur Fleck, a tortured wannabee stand-up comedian that lives a lonely life with a handicapped mother. However, even with all of the beautiful cinematography, magnificent acting and stellar character development, one thing is missing from the film, [spoilers ahead] the Joker himself.
This is a character etched not only in the minds of comic book fans but has been cemented in pop-culture thanks to the 1960s television series “Batman,” and the now infamous Heath Ledger portrayal of the character in “The Dark Knight.” Those of us who have seen the show and film know how the Joker should talk and what he stands for even without Batman. However, I’m not quite sure this latest film captured that, and a second watch might help me solidify this opinion.
As a film, “Joker” works on just about every level, and if you forget about the mythos, there’s an excellent character study on mental health and society’s out casting of individuals such as Fleck that go on to seek their own kind of revenge.
The downtrodden, chaotic 1970s New York setting creates the perfect environment that would breed this type of psychopath that would later wreak havoc in a more organized way. But Fleck isn’t the cold, calculated Joker we’ve come to know and love. He’s a deeply disturbed individual who kills out of some sort of illness. When his government-funded social program can no longer provide him with the meds that kept his more sadistic side at bay, we are then graced with a being that somewhat resembles the clown prince of crime. But even here, the Joker seems to have a motive for seeking revenge on a society that rejected him, and that’s just not who the character is. In past efforts, the Joker lacks any reason as to why he does bad things and that’s what makes him so intriguing.
Stripping away the character’s mob ties which have been seen in other Joker origin stories such as 1989’s “Batman” also presents a problem for the portrayal because most of the crime we see from Fleck consists of murders. The Joker loves to kill every now and then, but we know him more as the reluctant kingpin that keeps Batman on his toes.
Aside from not getting the character right, I have to give Phillip’s points for creating a variation that works outside of the Batman world, and maybe that was his goal. If it was, he did an amazing job with the film and I applaud the detailed world-building, atmospheric tone and the acting of Joaquin Phoenix who rarely disappoints.