by Steven Wandling
After all of the media contrived controversies, the angry comic-book purists screeching into the wind, the forced political talking points, and the good old debate of art being responsible for violence Joker finally opens to the general public this weekend after winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. After seeing it last night, all of the hype is true: Joker is an incredible character story period piece that evokes both late 70s-early 80s New York that Martin Scorsese captured so well in early classics like Taxi Driver (1976) and King of Comedy (1983). The production design brings something we haven’t seen in Gotham City: realism. Joker‘s cinematography and overall beats also owe more than a little to the Italian Neo Realist movement of the masters like Fellini (La Strada, 81/2). Todd Phillips (The Hangover) left comedy behind to do something different and to leave the faux outrage of woke social media behind him, and one of these goals he boldly achieves with Joker. Unfortunately, social media exists for now.
Unlike any previous iterations of Gotham’s Clown Prince of Crime, Joker isn’t a comic book film. It’s a gritty character study of a derelict mentally ill man named Arthur Fleck that society has continuously shit upon, but in no way ever endorses the violence that he commits. The film also never explicitly denounces Arthur’s violence either, but it doesn’t have to. It shows the extent to which a society separated from the top 1% of the 1% is akin to a powder keg just waiting for a fuse. Arthur’s slow transformation into the Joker becomes the spark that lights the fuse of madness in Gotham City. In one of the most effective scenes, there is a riot outside of a Charlie Chaplin film screening for the elite. Arthur sneaks inside as a bell hop, and inside the pristine theater filled with Gotham’s finest, one would never know the city was destroying itself just outside the building on the street below.
Let them eat cake indeed, says Gotham Mayoral Candidate Thomas Wayne (Bret Cullen). This is the most fleshed out we’ve seen Thomas Wayne on film, and he’s certainly not the white knight portrayed in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. Why? Because only in a comic book would someone like Thomas Wayne not be a total elite wealthy piece of shit that calls the poor of the city he’s running to lead clowns. This leads to the mass protests of people in clown makeup that only propels Arthur’s growing madness when he loses his job as a street performing clown for bringing a gun into a children’s hospital. He didn’t have intentions to use it, but it’s still one of the more quietly terrifying moments as he dances to the sounds of smiling children that abruptly stop when his gun falls out and slides across the floor.
Arthur Fleck lives in a world of isolation, but doesn’t have the nihilism and hatred for people like Travis Bickle, at least not on the surface. And Joker begs the much more interesting question that no one seems to want to address: how responsible is society for the monsters that we create? It’s okay to treat people like absolute garbage, and when these people snap, they’re the only evil people in the equation. Maybe the reason mass shootings are up in America is a little more complicated than the reasons given time and time again. Joker throws our treatment of the mentally ill back in our face. It doesn’t matter that he ends up being a heinous serial killing, clown painted self-appointed prince of crime. Most mentally ill people do not. And that’s the cautionary tale part of the film, the possibilities of what could happen because you never know who you’re throwing away and what that damaged psyche could do if pushed just too far. That, and ya know, NO ONE DESERVES TO BE TREATED LESS THAN HUMAN.
Arthur starts out in a lonely place taking care of his mentally ill mother Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy), an ex-Wayne Enterprises employee from 30 years ago. She’s convinced that there is a letter coming any day from Thomas Wayne himself that will somehow help her and Arthur, but explaining why would be spoiling more than I want to. Arthur’s mother is mentally ill and it becomes clear as the film moves forward that she’s just another cog in the wheel that helps turn Arthur Fleck, loner victim of society, into the Joker, mass murdering psychopath. Sophie Dummond (Zazie Beetz) is excellent as always as the would-be muse of Arthur, if only his stand up would ever take off. In a great role reversal from Rupert Pupkin in King Of Comedy, Robert De Niro turns in one of his best performances in years as talk show host Murray Franklin, who Arthur fantasizes about as he dreams of being a famous stand up comedian and sees as a surrogate father figure.
Sadly, The Murray Franklin Show is just another instance of society kicking Arthur in the teeth. Somehow the late night hit show is sent a disastrous tape of Arthur bombing at an open mic standup. It’s tragic to watch, as are many of the pained expressions mixed with uncomfortable laughter from Arthur. He has a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably when he’s upset or nervous, which you can imagine does him no favors in any social setting anywhere. He is an extremely odd individual that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. The slightest of positive interactions with another human being cause Arthur to supplant that person into his fantasy, until a reveal leading into the third act changes everything and the mask of sanity slips entirely off.
The state fails Arthur. They cut city mental health programs that people like Arthur need to function safely in society. He’s on seven different medications and he’s told he needs to come off of them in a week. Too unrealistic you say? Then, congratulations, you don’t what it’s like for the rest of us out here. His mother fails him, keeping him at home his entire life convincing Arthur that he’s sick and somehow special at the same time to keep him under her thumb. Thomas Wayne fails him and the entirety of Gotham City by treating the underclass like the clowns he outright says he views them to be. Murray Franklin let Arthur Fleck down by using him as the butt of his jokes. And we all let people down like that every day. Thankfully, they aren’t all Arthur Fleck…but they could be.
Joker doesn’t paint Arthur Fleck as an every man, which serves to the film’s benefit. It doesn’t posit that anyone could become a mass murderer on the basis of just one bad day, or even one bad life. This is Arthur Fleck’s story, and there are hints of his capability of violence from very early on in the film that make it even more complicated. Joker isn’t asking you to take sides or empathize with the Joker, it’s asking you to empathize with a human being named Arthur Fleck. If you can root for Walter White or Tony Soprano, you should have no problem wearing the black hat for the film of 2019.
Joker opens everywhere today, October 4th, and is playing in theaters nationwide! Thanks for reading! If you like what you’ve seen, please share with your cinema loving friends! Follow creepylovely on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. If you would like to contact or write to us, just shoot us a private message or DM on social media! Stay creepy!