Arthur Fleck puts on a brave face for the world, but everything around him is rotted. There has been a city-wide emergency declared in Gotham, with garbage piling up on the streets, the services unable to cope. There are fears of an outbreak of typhoid and “super rats.” There is misery aplenty but little hope to offset it, yet still he puts on his clown costume and goes out to undertake the impossible task of making people happy even though there is nobody to make him happy.
Suffering from a neurological condition where he is subject to uncontrollable and inappropriate laughter, his co-workers in the clown agency are uncomfortable around him. He lives with his housebound mother, taking care of her in her daydream existence. He has no friends, only his precarious job where he is attacked, not for financial gain but simply for the sake of it, by a gang of youths.
Arthur knows he needs help, but in lieu of a proper assessment or support he is instead pumped full of multiple medications until the funding crisis cuts into social services and he is set adrift in an indifferent world where the fragile border between fantasy and delusion breaks down, where the only response to the madness is to join it, where with no other cards left to play the only option left is to give in and become the Joker.
A character whose creation is credited to Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson who first appeared in comic strip form in 1940, the Joker has gone through as many evolutions as the Dark Knight against whom he has most often found the obstacle to his nefarious schemes, and with iconic screen portrayals by Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger and less so by Jared Leto, it is You Were Never Really Here‘s Joaquin Phoenix whom writer/director Todd Phillips cast in the role.
A stylistic return to the heavyweight character cinema of the seventies, Joker is a departure in from the expectation of what is nominally a comic book film; Arthur Fleck does not have a focus for his anger, does not have a goal, even less a coherent or dastardly plan to get there. He is not the source of the trouble in Gotham, he is a product of it, a lowly cog so worn down and battered that it slips out of place unseen and throws the machine into chaos by the very unpredictability of its nature.
“The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t,” he writes in the journal his outreach worker asked him to keep, the pages having metamorphosed into a joke diary which is singularly unfunny unless you have lived life in Arthur’s oversize clown shoes, the audience aware that every laugh is a reaction to disappointment, rejection, pain, embarrassment.
Perhaps understandable, an object of pity, Phillips has built Joker around Phoenix and the impressive and imposing architecture of Gotham and both are impervious to any warmth or sympathy, Arthur increasingly impenetrable and unreachable as he hides himself behind masks, unmedicated and incapable of governing his actions, abandoned by the system and betrayed by his mother Penny, a low-key performance from Six Feet Under’s Frances Conroy.
The film accused by some of glorifying or inciting violence, it is instead a condemnation of the failing of government and society to alleviate the circumstances which allow such desperation to exist, even thrive on it, the wealthy making empty promises of change while safe behind the walls and gates of their luxurious homes, Arthur Fleck nothing more than the spark which lights ablaze a bonfire already set, a boy who learned to smile only when his surrounds reflect the landscape of his mind.
Joker is currently on general release from Arkham Asylum