Joaquin Phoenix turns in an Oscar-worthy performance as a failed stand-up comedian struggling with mental illness in Joker, Director Todd Phillips’ controversial interpretation of the classic Batman villain. The film won the coveted Golden Lion when it premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in August and raked in an impressive $247 million globally in its opening weekend. It deserves every bit of that success.
Joker is intended as a standalone film—part of DC Films’ decision to move away from the shared-universe approach of their prior franchise films (aka, the Marvel model). So it has no relation to the Justice League films that came before. That freed Phillips to create his own darker, gritty version of this iconic character, with a comparatively modest budget of $55 million. There’s no real origin story for the Joker in the comics—not a definitive one, anyway—so Phillips and screenwriter Scott Silver were able to cherry-pick the canonical elements they needed and make up the rest. (In Batman: The Killing Joke, for instance, the Joker is a failed comedian.)
(Some spoilers below.)
I confess, when the project was first announced, I was skeptical about whether we really needed a standalone film for the Joker. But then the first trailer dropped and I found myself intrigued because it really did look like a unique take on the character. Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a struggling aspiring stand-up comedian in Gotham City in 1981, taking care of his ailing mother Penny (Frances Conroy). She calls him “Happy,” and while deep down, Arthur is anything but, he does his best to “smile and put on a happy face” to please her. But life has not been kind to Arthur. He’s had at least one stint at Arkham Asylum and suffers from a neurological disorder that causes him to break out in maniacal laughter whenever he is anxious or stressed (which is often).
This doesn’t play well in public. Most people avert their eyes or move away, but he is often targeted by bullies and beaten up because he laughs in inappropriate contexts. Stand-up comedy comes with constant rejection and hence is not for the faint of heart or frail of ego. Arthur’s day job is dressing up as a clown for hire, doing birthday parties, promotional gigs, hospital visits, and the like. But he and his mother are just scraping by, and his therapy sessions and medications soon fall victim to city-wide budget cuts. The only light in his dismal life is a young single mother in his building named Sophie (Zazie Beetz), with whom he is secretly smitten.
It’s not an understatement to say this film belongs to Joaquin Phoenix, whose masterful performance transforms the narrative into something more than a competent-but-unremarkable tale of hard knocks driving a troubled man to violence. He even dropped a whopping 52 pounds for the role. Seriously, just give him the Best Actor Oscar already. (Phoenix has been nominated three times and never won.)
I remain a huge fan of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, easily one of the best portrayals of a fully developed Joker on-screen. And I am loath to compare the two performances, mostly because, for much of Joker, Phoenix is playing Arthur Fleck, the repressed, introverted, mentally ill man who gradually descends into violent anarchy. (The film is deliberately ambiguous as to whether Arthur becomes the actual Joker.) That journey is portrayed not just in broad strokes but also via the tiniest of mannerisms. Arthur practices some awkward form of tai chi while attempting to calm down after an encounter with subway thugs, for instance, which eventually turns into the Joker’s theatrical flourishes when he introduces himself to the world on live TV in the film’s final act.
Phillips cited Martin Scorsese films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The King of Comedy among his influences when developing Joker, and Scorsese even served as co-producer during development before departing the project to focus on The Irishman. The final film certainly has a bit of that classic Scorsese flavor, but it’s not fair to dismiss it as a cheap knockoff, or “Scorsese-Lite.” This is every bit Phillips’ artistic vision, and it’s a sharp departure from his previous work (The Hangover franchise in particular). I actually forgot I was watching an origin story about a comic book villain—that’s how raw the film can be, particularly in its depiction of the sociopolitical turmoil of the early 1980s.
It’s also pretty unflinching in how it handles mental illness. Take this “joke” Arthur scribbles down in his comedy notebook early on: “The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” That is a brutal truth, and we see it play out over and over in Arthur’s interactions with other people. Phillips also shows considerable skill in telling his story from the perspective of an unreliable narrator. What is real, and what is delusion? It’s often unclear, particularly early on in the film.
“The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”
The repeated puncturing of his fragile illusions ultimately drives Arthur over the edge, particularly since he is no longer taking his medications. His violent outbursts start out as self-defense, then shift into revenge against those who ridiculed and humiliated him—until he finally succumbs completely to madness, igniting riots throughout Gotham City in the process. It’s not Arthur/Joker deliberately leading Gotham City into chaos; he says repeatedly that he’s not “political.” The city was already a pressure cooker of simmering tensions, just waiting for a match to light it all up—much like Arthur’s precarious psychological state.
Joker generated considerable controversy even before its release, with some fearful that such an empathetic portrayal of a nihilistic criminal could inspire real-world violence. The Colorado theater that was the site of a 2012 mass shooting during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises declined to screen Joker altogether, and Landmark Theaters banned patrons from attending screenings in Joker costumes. Red carpet access was limited to press photographers only during the US premiere. I understand the concern. It’s true that the character of the Joker appeals to online “incels,” for instance, and to a certain, shall we say, aggressively hostile segment of our society that romanticizes violent anarchy. Someone with a serious mental illness could indeed latch onto any piece of popular culture and twist it in support of their particular delusion. So it’s wise to take reasonable precautions, particularly where credible threats exist.
But that doesn’t make this an irresponsible film. Seeking to explore how such monsters are made—and how our own lack of empathy for those less fortunate, augmented by a crumbling social infrastructure and rising economic inequality, contributes to their creation—does not excuse or condone their horrific acts. Perhaps what people find most unsettling about Joker is that it holds up an unflattering mirror, reflecting our own indifference and complicity, whether intentional or not.