It seems unlikely that the director of mostly comedies like WAR DOGS, THE HANGOVER movies and OLD SCHOOL be the one to create this odd but original DC comic Batman villain JOKER. But is this really the JOKER villain that challenges Batman so many times, or is he the inspiration for the real villain. The age difference between this joker and Bruce Wayne appears so, but director Phillips leaves the answer ambiguous. As such, JOKER is an intelligent enough alternative Marvel Universe movie that concentrates on a villain as the protagonist. The graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) was the basis for the premise.
The joker is a real loser in life. Born poor with a mental disability, this sorrowful soul (Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck/Joker) is a mentally ill, impoverished stand-up comedian disregarded by society, whose history of abuse causes him to become a nihilistic criminal. The illness causes Arthur to occasionally break out into uncontrollable laughter.
Phoenix has starred before in movies with a similar character, a loser as in YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE and INHERENT VICE, films that did not make great money but with this character immersed in a Marvel Universe, JOKER has made Warner Bros. an unexpected amount of money. Arthur’s inspiration is talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) who allows Arthur on his show though later berates him causing Arthur to take immense offence and revenge. De Niro is superb here. When De Niro and Phenix appear together, De Niro steals the scene from Phoenix ( as evident in the first scene together, showing him to be what can be classified as a great actor. The script takes De Niro from an early character in Martin Scorcese’s THE KING OF COMEDY where De Niro plays an upcoming comedian stalking successful comedian star played by Jerry Lewis.
JOKER is not a pleasant watch, since the often disturbing film deals with mental illness, depression, violence and the underworld of Gotham City (the film is shot in New York). But it is a superbly crafted film going deep into the recesses of Arthur’s demise.
The camera work is nothing short of stunning. Arthur’s chase of the young hooligans who steal his sign down the streets of the city is expertly shot. The segment where the ambulance carrying Arthur’s mother Penny (Frances Conroy) screeches through a tunnel with the shearing lights doubles up on the madness of the situation and Arthur’s mental state.
Director Phillips gets the audience on Arthur’s side when he kills three yuppie criminals who beat him up on the subway train. The audience feels sorry for Arthur, a vigilante at this point, but his behaviour also prevents the audience to feel sorry any further.
JOKER won the Golden Lion when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival. It is also the number 1 R-rated box-office champion of all time. JOKER is a film that demands to be seen, especially for cineastes. The film should come away with a few Academy Awards in 2020.