Numerous actors have depicted Batman’s most famous villain, the Joker, over the years, all with different takes on the evil clown. Joaquin Phoenix is the latest in a long line of actors that includes Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, and Heath Ledger. Phoenix’s Joker is an emaciated, mentally ill, very psychotic, yet somewhat sympathetic character. His performance highlights the strong, yet controversial Joker.
Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker, the highest-grossing Rated-R movie of all time, is set in early '80s Gotham City, where a garbage strike has led to an infestation of super rats. Gotham’s prognosis is bleak and the division between the rich and poor is huge. These differences fuel some of the conflicts in the film. Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, an aspiring comedian who works as a clown to pay the bills while he writes his stand-up material. Fleck is mentally ill and has been seeking treatment. When he asks the doctor to up his medication, he is told that he is already on seven different meds as it is. He later stops taking his medication and, predictably, becomes unhinged - one of the many sources of criticism in the film - as it seemingly equates mental illness, at least in Fleck’s case, with psycho killer.
Fleck doesn’t start off as a killer, of course. His life has seen a continuous string of bad luck, and it is the cumulative effect of these negative events, along with not taking his medication, that finally make him crack. A group of street thugs attack him while he is holding a sign in front of a music store and beat him when he chases after them. Later, one of his clown coworkers gives him a gun to protect himself and it falls out of his clown suit while he is performing at a children’s hospital, leading him to be fired. He longs to be a comedian and appear on Live! With Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), but is mocked by his own mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy), who asks, “Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?”
Among Fleck’s ailments is a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably, often at the most inappropriate times. This laugh often gets him into trouble when people think he is mocking them. While riding a subway, still in his clown garb, Fleck starts laughing uncontrollably when a group of three Wall Street types start harassing a woman riding alone. This leads to the men attacking him before Fleck kills two of them on the subway while wounding the other. When the third tries to escape and leaves the subway, Fleck shoots him too and seems to revel in his actions, if only briefly. While Fleck tries to keep it together, he has unwittingly sparked a movement against the rich by the city’s downtrodden. People start dressing in clown masks and protesting, most notably against Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), the billionaire businessman and father to the future Batman who has become the scapegoat for all that is wrong with the wealthy to the protestors. To that end, Wayne is portrayed as smug, with little use for the poor, and as a man who feels he can fix what ails them. Critics of the film worried it was glorifying violence and that similar protests and killings would happen in real life.
Fleck lives with his mother and they share a somewhat creepy relationship - he is seen bathing her in one scene. She is obsessed with Wayne and implies there is a connection between the two families. Arthur investigates and finds out there is a connection, but it is not what he thought, further adding to his confusion and growing rage. He does seem to get a bit of good news though, when, after Murray Franklin shows a clip of Fleck bombing at a comedy club, it sparks an invitation for him to be on the show. There are parallels here between this film and Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy, which also starred De Niro. In that film, De Niro plays the psychotic comedian longing to be on a talk show hosted by Jerry Lewis. Here, De Niro is the host, with Phoenix the crazed guest. Like everything else in Fleck’s life though, the appearance on the show does not go according to anyone's plan.
The video is presented in 1080p High Definition and looks great. The brightly colored Joker suit contrasts brilliantly with Gotham’s harsh exterior. Audio options include Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English, English Descriptive Audio, Dolby Digital: English, French, and Spanish. The Blu-ray also includes a number of extras, such as the making of, alternate takes, and costume tests.
Phoenix delivers a fantastic performance and manages to add an air of sympathy to a serial killer. We are led to believe that life made him this way and, while that may or may not be true, Phoenix is very convincing in the role. In spite of the obvious homages to past crime dramas, Joker is an excellent origin story and certainly among the top DC comic book films. Well worth a look.