Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz
Director: Todd Phillips
Screenplay: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Crime/Drama/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Date: October 4, 2019
If third time’s the charm – I’d say this incarnation of Joker is the most charming…
No joke, this movie blew me away.
All jokes aside, this movie almost gave me nightmares.
It’s my pleasure to introduce our guest reviewer for this movie, the illustrious Olivia Efthimiou, a recognized scholar of heroism who has published numerous articles and a book on heroism studies.
The pleasure is all mine, Scott and Greg. Your illustrious reputation precedes the both of you, so it’s an honour.
It’s 1981 and Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a struggling, professional clown. He is employed twirling advertising signs in front of stores, performing for children in a cancer ward, and birthday parties. He’s also stricken with a mental condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably when he’s nervous. He lives with his mother who claims that Thomas Wayne is a benefactor. Arthur longs to be a stand-up comedian but is very shy and insecure.
One day after Arthur has been beaten up by some young hoodlums, a friend at work gives him a gun to protect himself. Arthur then gets fired from his job when the gun accidentally falls out of his clown costume while he entertains children. In addition, Arthur’s public-funded therapy comes to an end when social services cuts funding.
This leads into a pivotal moment in the plot. While coming home from work in his costume he is alone on the subway with some obnoxious, young men. After picking on a young woman who walks away, they begin to verbally ridicule Arthur who starts to laugh uncontrollably. This turns into a physical attack very quickly, as Arthur is beaten down once again. But Arthur brings out his gun and points at them, and fires on one, then the other. The third one runs away and Arthur chases after him. What is initially self-defence now turns into a hunt. Arthur hunts him in the station and guns him down in an execution style murder.
I went into the theater with both expectation and trepidation. After Jared Leto’s Joker character in Suicide Squad, I was worried about what we might see. But Phoenix’s performance was a natural continuation of Jack Nicholson’s and Heath Ledger’s interpretations. This Joker is severely damaged by society, his mother, his job, and his own mental illness. I was more than satisfied with this character. I was elated with this movie. This is a true descent of a sympathetic, deeply hurt person who is driven further and further into madness by the effects of the people surrounding him. This is an amazing achievement.
I agree, Greg. Joker is a movie that is both disturbing and illuminating. The disturbing aspect of Joker is pretty self-evident. This is a story about a broken and fragile man, trying to piece his life together in an unforgiving society, a society that is designed to crush people who are broken and fragile. During the first half of the story, Arthur isn’t a bad or dangerous person. He’s been deeply damaged as a small child and is motivated to live a normal life with a job. He even dreams of becoming a stand-up comic and has the courage to go on stage with his own material.
Despite his best efforts, Arthur is beaten down by his peers, by strangers, and by a social system that fails him. He is in immense emotional pain for which there is no relief. Most importantly, he is powerless. This feeling of powerlessness lies at the crux of the choice (if you can call it that) he must make between pursuing a life of goodness and wholeness versus a life of violence and brokenness. Should we be surprised at all that possessing and using a gun – a violent symbol of power – is the key to his choice and the catalyst of his dark transformation?
Thanks guys, I’m in full agreement over here. I thought I might have to apologise in advance for taking a rather forgiving analysis of Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal, but I see I won’t need to.
I was fascinated by the artistic, performative and embodied dimensions of the movie. The Joker, in Phoenix’s portrayal, is an unfulfilled artist. Throughout the film he longs for but never reaches the climactic peak of true connection with the audience and creative act. It is almost as if his uncontrollable laughter is a way of climaxing. Every artist longs for this creative peak and connection. The Joker’s art is interwoven and inextricably linked with his pain and madness. It is his core essence. It is the life force that drives him and his raison d’etre.
But this all changes in the moment he comes on stage as Murray Franklin’s guest, the TV show host he fantasises about being acknowledged by, who also ridicules his stand-up comedy. The entire movie is leading up to this powerful scene. Here, Arthur Fleck becomes a character within a character – this is the birth of the Joker, the seeds of which were planted in his traumatic childhood.
His performance of pain and madness are sublime, as he glides onto the stage he prepares for the apex of his performance as an artist. It is his gift to Gotham City, to the world, and to those who have been stepped on their entire lives like him. It is the ultimate transmission of his pain. Like any climactic performance, an apotheosis and standing ovation must ensue. This does not come in the structure of oppression symbolised by Murray’s stage room. It comes, befittingly, in the bowels of the decay. On the streets, amidst blood, terror and destruction. As the Joker stands up on top of the car, his downtrodden victorious followers applaud their hero, their inspiration. And the climactic cycle of artistic fulfilment is complete.
So the burning question for you both – do you consider the Joker to be a hero or a villain, or something else?
I think this story follows the classic Hero’s Journey – but at the major turning points, the elements of the journey are inverted. For example, there is usually a mentor character who gives advice and gifts that will support the hero in their journey. In Arthur’s case, a dark mentor gives him a revolver and tells him to take care of himself. Another major turning point that the reluctant hero (at about the midpoint) fully commits to his destiny and begins the heroic charge. In Arthur’s case, the midpoint comes when Arthur is attacked by the Wall Street “thugs.” Arthur kills one of them in self-defense. But then, he rises to the level of the villain by hunting down the third man and shooting him dead – and then shooting him again for the joy of it. Finally, the hero often (at about the 75% point) loses someone close to him. In Arthur’s case, he flips this turning point on its head by killing his own mother. This seals his fate. So… is he a hero or a villain?
In my estimation, this makes Arthur Fleck a classic anti-hero. The anti-hero (as we defined in our book Reel Heroes and Villains) is a protagonist who is a true villain. If Arthur had somehow turned his pain into something good by the end of the movie, he would be a redeemed hero. But because he both starts and embraces the chaos surrounding his actions, he is villainous. Joker, as protrayed here, is an anti-hero.
Well said, Gregger. And I love the shameless plug of our book, especially.
Olivia, my answer to your question of whether Arthur is hero or villain is a resounding “yes”. There are elements of both. More specifically, Arthur is a pre-hero who is partly denied the opportunity to evolve into a hero and is also partly responsible through his choices for not evolving into a hero. As Greg suggests, Arthur is on the hero’s journey but he stuck midway through the journey, unable to transform his pain. This inability leads to his moral descent.
At the halfway point of the story, Arthur is at a crossroads – he is poised to become either a hero who transcends his suffering or a villain who succumbs to it. The best image of transformation I can think of is that of a person teetering on the ridge, or apex, of a roof. He can slide down the roof in either direction, depending on his own balance and the direction of the wind. If it is a helpful wind, Arthur will “fall” into heroism (see Richard Rohr’s excellent book Falling Upward). But it turns out that the toxic winds of society blow Arthur down the dark path and his descent from the roof is in a tragically violent direction.
Let’s be clear here: This isn’t all about the wind. Despite all the situational pressures to pursue the path of evil, Arthur does have a choice between good and evil. When he hunts down the last of the three subway attackers, it’s clear that Arthur’s newfound feeling of empowerment has taken the darkest of turns. Regarding situational influences on evil, Phil Zimbardo once said, “Psychology is not excuse-iology.” What this means is that while we can understand Arthur’s transformation toward evil, we should not excuse or condone it. Hunting someone down and killing them is wrong, pure and simple. Arthur is psychologically scarred, yes, but this movie makes it clear that he knows right from wrong.
Bottom line about Arthur: Contrary to what some are saying, Arthur cannot be deemed a hero and is at best an anti-hero, for two reasons. First, his violent deviance was never intended to start a social movement. His original shooting of the three men was motivated by self-defense and his victims just happened to be rich one-percenters whose death struck a social chord. There’s nothing Ghandian or Nelson Mandelian about Arthur at all. The second reason that Arthur cannot be a hero resides in his desire to transmit pain rather than transform it. He is not motivated to help others; he is motivated to sow discord, and this motivation will remain with him long after society needs such discord to become more enlightened. Arthur does not travel the full hero’s journey; he’s trapped inside of it, confusing power with violence and unable to transcend his darkness and pain.
Wow. Well said both. Right, I’m outta here.
No, seriously. I agree with both of you. I think your insights really highlight how contentious the dichotomy of heroism/villainy Is, how we need to start to move into more hybridised concepts (such as the anti-hero) which I see as flipsides of the same coin, and how deeply the layers of this movie go in unsettling our pre-conceptions, turning our ideas of heroism and villainy on their head.
I will take the lens of the role of art and the artist again in the movie, and the role of art as catharsis. I see the hero as being the quintessential artist – the hero’s role is to turn the social order upside down, to draw out the disease, and for allowing the undercurrents to come to the surface. Although the Joker cannot be classified as a hero because of his methods, he plays an important part in restoring the greater good, in exposing the corruption and despair, giving it a voice, so that it can inevitably be healed, albeit by another character (perhaps the Batman) down the track. A necessary purging that is messy and not pretty prior to healing.
I think the metaphor of the Vale of Shadows cited in one of my favourite TV series Stranger Things is useful here. A world of death and decay that is a reflection of our world – it is right next to you but you don’t even see it. Similarly, the rich, the educated and fortunate of Gotham City may pass the downtrodden as if they don’t exist. And if they do, their deep pain and despair is invisible to them. Their disdain and ridicule for them is blinding. Arthur has lived in the Vale of Shadows all his life. But he is not alone. The undercurrent of madness, despair and anger lurks underneath the city. It lies dormant, festering like a wound.
Arthur’s act of fighting back against the bullies in the subway becomes the point in which the volcano bubbling away erupts. His pent up pain and madness spills out through the gun, and the necrotic tissue begins to take over the social organism of Gotham City. One can argue that heroism is like a mutation in an established system. A hero sees the disease within a system and takes actions to dismantle that system. No creation can be brought about without destruction.
The Joker is a hero to the people of Gotham. He is the driving force, the spark that lights the fire needed to burn down an oppressive order, and the dissolution of a corrupt culture. What distinguishes the Joker from pure heroism, however, is most likely that the means used spread and proliferate decay, death and despair, rather than transmute it into posttraumatic growth and healing – enter the murder of young Bruce Wayne’s parents by a masked Clown amidst the riots moments later the Joker’s speech on TV.
This perhaps one of the most important lessons of the movie: no matter how dark and despondent the unfolding of social deviance, heroes will rise and the desire for the restoration of social good and justice, in this case, Batman (albeit whose methods are equally questionable).
Joker is an amazingly well-written, produced, directed, and acted film. It was hard for me to dissect the film as I watched it as I was drawn into this universe and held transfixed by the events. I cannot imagine anything that would have improved this movie – so I give it 5 out of 5 Reels.
I cannot judge the Joker as a hero because he is a truly villainous character. As an anti-hero, I also have trouble judging him because generally, we LIKE the anti-hero. But there is no doubt, this is an origin story of one of the most iconic villains in history. I give Joker 5 out of 5 Anti-Heroes.
As far as messages go, I think the vast majority of professional critics have completely missed the point. This is not a story of the 1980s, or of a comic book universe, but the current state of American society. We are well-poised for the emergence of a Joker in the real world. If in fact, we have not already been witness to it. I give this message 5 out of 5 Message Points.
For its fascinating psychological analysis of troubled individuals living in a troubled society, Joker is clearly among the best films of 2019 and should garner considerable Oscar attention. Joaquin Phoenix should win Best Actor, hands down. Overall, I’m enthralled and mesmerized by the depth of the storytelling and performances here. I give Joker the full 5 Reels out of 5.
There’s no point in belaboring my points about the genesis of the complex anti-heroism of the Joker. Suffice to say that the Joker in this film is the most complex and controversial “hero” we’ve seen in the movies in a long, long time. I give this extraordinary and troubled character 5 Anti-Hero points out of 5.
As Olivia so very eloquently points out, the message of this movie points to the toxicity of society and the ways that this toxicity undermines the heroic trajectory of individual citizens. The Joker is a metaphor for us all — average people looking to better themselves but find roadblocks in the form of corruption and injustice steeped deeply at all layers of our economic and political systems. This film screams at us to take a good hard look at our social values and principles. I give the message 5 Message points out of 5.
Well said yet again, Greg and Scott.
This movie is heady, poetry in motion, desperate and deeply unsettling. It is art in motion, and the portrayal of social resistance and malaise at its best. I give it 4 Reels out of 5.
Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is haunting and profoundly layered. I give his portrayal of the Joker 5 Anti-Hero or Anti-Villain (depending on where you stand on the spectrum) points out of 5.
As for the message – I will revert back to the role of the arts and their cathartic potential. There is no way out but through in holistic healing. This movie is a powerful warning to allow these unconscious fears, darkness and desires to be transmuted in a healthy way. The performative and embodied aspects of the movie are telling of dance and artistic movement as liberation from an oppressive order. The Joker’s body becomes a symbolic battleground for the oppressive rich system and the rise-up of the freedom and artistry of deviance. His body has been battered and bruised his whole life. We see him repeatedly beaten and wailed at visibly, and more subtly abused through the medication of his body through prescription anti-psychotic and anti-depressant drugs. But at points in the movie we see him reclaim power in his body through these delicately, spider-esque movements, dancing with his mother or on his own. The movements are subtle yet powerful, like Tai-Chi or Qi Gong movements that help re-balance energy and reach some form of transcendent essence of being that moves beyond the pain.
In terms of heroism, this movie is a caution that labels such as heroes, villains, victims etc are purely functional and not end markers in the complex tapestry of the human condition. No matter where you think its protagonist lies on the spectrum of heroism and villainy, one thing is sure – the Joker is the portrayal of deviant art and the art of deviance at its finest.
I give the movie 5 message points out of 5.
Wow. Olivia, you are an artist in your use of the English language. We’re humbled that you’ve joined us on this review. Your insights about the artistry of deviance are fascinating and thought-provoking.
Greg, are you in favor of installing Joker into our Reel Heroes Hall of Fame?
Absolutely, Scott – on both accounts. Olivia, you really raised the bar on the quality of our reviews. I hope you’ll come back and share your thoughts with us soon.
And Joker should clearly be a Reel Heroes Hall of Fame inductee. It’s been over three years since we had a Hall of Famer.