Before I get started, I should note that this review will feature some spoilers. I comfortably do this because I know there are a lot of you that are curious about the movie but have zero intention to go see it. That said, I’m going to try very hard to keep the spoilers light regardless.
I had the chance to see Joker over the weekend and, like everyone else, I went in with some expectations. I wasn’t at all thinking I was going in to see an action-packed thrill ride of psychopathic crime thanks to everyone’s favorite killer clown, and instead thought that I’d see something of a story about a mentally disturbed individual from the perspective of a highly unreliable narrator.
I got exactly what I thought I was going to get, I just didn’t think I’d get that story so well done, or done so oppressively.
Joker is a story about a mentally ill man named Arthur Fleck who lives in fictional Gotham City. Over the course of the movie, you watch one mind-breaking thing after another happen to Fleck, and slowly watch as it transforms him into one of the greatest villains of all time.
And these mind-breaking things happen often. Director Todd Phillips does such an excellent job of making everything in Fleck’s life so oppressive that you as an audience member feel it too.
For instance, from the get-go, you get a real sense of how horrible Fleck’s life is. He’s a meek man suffering from mental issues. He sees a state-provided therapist who provides him with numerous medications. He works as a clown for an agency that has him dancing in hospitals for children or sign twirling outside a business. He lives with his mother, who is also mentally ill, in a dingy apartment in the bad part of town.
The audience is presented with all of this and then invited to watch as this man’s already horrid life collapses around him with one horrible event after another ranging from being robbed and beaten up to having his very identity stripped from him.
I keep using the word “oppressive” to describe the story, and I’m doing this intentionally. The story is oppressive. You never get the sense that things are going to get better and even the positive things in the story are really just a further look into how Fleck attempts to bend his perception of his own reality in order to help him cope.
For many movie-goers, this may be a bit much. In fact, there have been reports of people walking out of the movie due to its disturbing nature, and I can’t blame them. The movie is disturbing, but not in a “watch as a horror movie villain carves up teens with a chainsaw” kind of disturbing.
It’s disturbing because you watch as a man who clearly needs help is not only abandoned in various ways but is continuously beaten down both figuratively and very literally. This happens in the very dingy, grey, and dirty city of Gotham — a villain on its own — where the rampant crime is illuminated by dim fluorescent lighting. Almost every line of dialogue adds to the pressuring darkness you feel as it’s coming from the lips of an individual who is mentally ill, or some person who is only out for himself and willing to use people selfishly for their own gain.
Joker is not a horror movie, but you do feel a sense of horror watching it.
But the performances and directing within the movie are so good that this horrific oppression rides a knife’s edge that keeps it from falling into becoming overwhelmingly disturbing on one side, and too dismal on the other. Joaquin Pheonix’s portrayal of Fleck is so perfect that I’m actually worried that his method acting will have damaged him psychologically. Phillips’ ability to tell the story of a disturbed man’s life in the middle of a city during an ongoing class war is so well balanced that I’m pretty sure it’s going to be studied for years to come.
Plus, everyone will get to see the big payoff of the emergence of the Joker, and Phillips is fantastically faithful to the character while he and Phoenix make it their own.
There’s something about the Joker that has fascinated people for decades. He’s a macabre and purely evil character who continuously defies explanation. He’s a murderer who appears psychotic and goofy on the outside but is consistently revealed to be something of a genius. He’s always five steps ahead of everyone else thanks, in part, to his ability to understand the darker side of human nature better than anyone else, including Batman.
What’s more, you’re not really sure who he is or what happened to him in his past to make him that way. Joker’s origin story has always been something of a mystery, and there have been various tellings of it. Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies even paid homage to this as Heath Ledger’s Joker would tell differing stories about how he got his scars.
Like Nolan before him, Phillips lifted this idea from one of the most popular Joker comic stories of all time, “The Killing Joke.” In this classic Batman vs. Joker storyline, the Joker is trying to break Commissioner Gordon mentally and turn him into another Joker in order to prove to Batman that everyone is “the Joker” and all that separates them from becoming him is “one bad day.”
Within this legendary monologue, Joker mentions that he doesn’t quite recall his own past. Sometimes he remembers it one way, sometimes another, and that if he’s going to have an origin story he prefers it to be multiple choice.
You can watch the video below for an abridged version of that speech.
Phillips continues this tradition through multiple means, and you’re taught that the stories Fleck is told from others about his past are not only untrustworthy, but the events from Fleck’s own mind are especially not to be relied on.
You’re let in early on that Fleck is prone to delusion. He creates scenarios in his head where he’s accepted and admired, especially from his hero, late-night show host Murray Franklin (DeNiro). This kind of overt daydreaming isn’t seen again, but as the movie progresses, it’s shown that Fleck is still doing this, but in ways more integrated into his world.
This begins to make you question everything you’ve seen, be it the outcomes of simple physical confrontations or conversations he’s had with people. You’re forced to piece together what did and didn’t happen within the movie as the credits roll. You may even question whether the entire movie actually happened by the time of the final scene.
It can be a bit maddening.
But this is the Joker, and that’s the point.
It actually works. You remember that despite the gritty realism, you did just watch a movie from the perspective of one of the most maniacal and fantastical characters in human literature. You leave the theatre with so many questions but having those questions only spurs your enjoyment of the movie, rather than hinders it.
You’re satisfied by the end despite all the dangling loose ends and possibly even because of them. What’s more, you don’t even walk away feeling bad for not sympathizing with Fleck. Unlike most villain focused movies where Hollywood tries to paint them as misunderstood or gives them justifiable reasons for their evil, you’re invited to hate Fleck free of guilt.
He’s definitely evil, and he’s also possibly been lying to you this entire time in order to play with your mind…because that’s what the Joker does.
This movie is so well done and will quite possibly go down as one of the greatest achievements in cinema history. I’ll talk glowingly about it every time it comes up in conversation.
That said, I’m not sure I want to see it again. While it was fascinating, I would rather keep it at arm’s length. It’s a movie that can exhaust you. It causes you to feel psychological and emotional discomfort. There’s never a moment where this oppression lets up, even when you see the “snap” moment when Fleck fully realizes himself as the Joker. It weighs on you well into the credits and as you walk out of the theatre doors. It follows you home while you drive in your car.
While this is a masterful piece of storytelling and acting that I can’t recommend seeing enough, it’s an experience I only want to have once.