It was just over ten years ago that I (and the rest of the world) were wowed over Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of the character of the Joker immortalized forever by Heath Ledger. The punctuation of that performance sealed in the acting pantheon with Ledger winning a posthumous Oscar. Since then the character of the Joker has been portrayed on both television and film since, by Cameron Monaghan and Jared Leto respectively, with varying results and levels of acceptance & dismissal by critics and fanboys alike. But this is the first time that a movie has been done with a singular comic book villain serving as the darkest of antiheroes in a standalone origin story.
The true origin of the character known to all as the Joker is just as dark and mysterious as Todd Phillips’ story brought to terrifying life by Joaquin Phoenix. Even though the clown prince made his debut in 1951 in the Batman comics, it wasn’t until 1988 that the graphic novel “The Killing Joke” attempted to give a loose interpretation of what kind of life this man had before his contempt for Gotham City and before donning the clown makeup.
Phillips’ story begins in the early 1980s with a man named Arthur Fleck. Living in poverty while struggling with mental illness and caring for his sick mother, Fleck dreams of being a stand-up comedian. But his impoverished life, his mother, and his mental illness all seem to be playing defense against him. Fed up with the hand he was dealt in life, Fleck comes to the realization that the reason his life is so miserable is the same reason that many other people in Gotham are suffering: while the poor continue to be ignored and forgotten, the rich get richer and more powerful.
Phoenix’s performance was incredible. Dropping over 50 pounds for the role, his emaciated frame added to the sense of weakness he had in his body as well as his mind. Adding to the effect of the character were the interpretive dances he would break into while celebrating after having committed a horrendous crime or being caught in one of his delusional fantasies. His laugh, which served as part of his character origin and development, made me just as uneasy as the characters around him.
From a filmmaker’s perspective, one thing that immediately caught my eye was the use of so many steep staircases. The metaphor was obvious. Whenever there was a staircase, Arthur Fleck was going up (usually wearing his oversized clown shoes,) signifying the difficult, stressful, and scary climb to the top. Then there were several scenes of Joker walking down. This was usually done slowly or in a celebratory way signifying (what I saw to be) his decent into madness.
Joker has received tremendous amounts of “Oscar buzz” particularly regarding Phoenix’s performance. Though the performance was stellar, I’m not ready to flat-out make the prediction that Phoenix is a shoe-in for the golden statue. But he’ll be nominated for sure.
For me, Joker was a very-well made, incredibly acted, dark and distorted look into the world of one of comic’s most iconic characters ever. The parallels between art and life are apparent and a little force-fed on the audience, but it’s a great example of a character study with lots of wiggle room for the most sinister of interpretations.