US (2019) Dir. Todd Phillips

“Everybody is awful these days. It’s enough to make anyone crazy!”

The black sheep of the nominees for Best Film at this year’s Oscars has divided opinion and will no doubt to continue to do so. It’s a film that breaks a few rules, one being a comic book origin story but not for a hero.

Set in 1981, Joker tells the story of the man who would become the greatest nemesis of Batman. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a clown and aspiring comedian living with his physically and mentally ill mother Penny (Frances Conroy) in Gotham City. Arthur has a rare neurological condition which causes him to laugh at pain and tragedy rather than cry which makes him seem weird to some and an easy target of violence by others, which is why a colleague gives Arthur a gun to protect himself.   

However, Arthur is later fired, and whilst still in his clown make-up, he witnesses three bankers harassing a woman on the subway and starts laughing. They attack him but Arthur shoots all three of them, making the news and leading to a series of protests against Gotham’s rich elite by rioters in clown masks. Arthur wants to focus on his comedy career but the more society fails to accept him, the more unhinged he becomes.

I’ve not seen Venom so I don’t know if the anti-Spiderman is portrayed as a villain or a hero, so do forgive me if I mistakenly declare Joker the first origin film for a baddie. It might seem an odd choice of subject as usually every superhero franchise tends to use each film as a way to introduce a new villain from scratch.

With the exception of Tim Burton’s Batman, The Joker has never really had that much of a backstory shared, not even with Heath Ledger’s now legendary take on the character, so Todd Phillips has taken it upon himself to create one that fans may, or may not, take as a definitive study of this classic villain. It’s a bold and modern approach offering much more than the deranged criminal falling into a vat of acid version that has hitherto been the accepted tale.

Phillips touches on many social and mental health issues in this film, which presumably feel too close to home for some audiences hence the hostility towards the film. The subway shooting since for instance was based on a real incident from 1984, with the gunman, Bernhard Goetz, being a lose inspiration for Arthur. Watching it today in June 2020 in the midst of the political protests occurring as I type this, the prescience may be unintentional but terrifying in its accuracy reflecting a hurt and disenfranchised society.

Gotham City in 1981 is rife with crime, unemployment, and government cuts while the rich and privileged continue to live the life of Riley. One in particular is Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), the former employer of Penny Fleck who hasn’t replied to the letters she sent him. This makes Arthur resent Wayne, until he reads one of the letters and discovers something about his past and his mother he wasn’t prepared to learn.

Elsewhere, Arthur’s failed first stand up gig is shown on his favourite TV chat show and is mortified when host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) uses it to make fun of Arthur. Fortunately, the clip got a good response so Arthur is invited to appear on the show and he accepts; unfortunately, a lot happens to Arthur in the week before the show and he is not the same person they were expecting when he arrives.

Much of the controversy stems from Arthur’s mental health issues as being the catalyst for his eventual criminal turn. It is a nice twist giving him a condition which disguises his true feelings; when we see him laughing after the subway shooting we know he is really in a state of stress – except the clown make-up also appears to be a demonic leveller of sorts.

Therefore, when Arthur finally goes full Joker we don’t know if his laughter is nerves or genuine maniacal glee, making him far more dangerous than the guffawing cartoon versions we grew up with. But, the implication this was caused by a fragile psyche, exacerbated by a cruel society and Arthur coming off his medication runs perilously close to belittling the issue just to tell a compelling story.

Forgive me for bringing up my Autism again but I could relate to Arthur on many levels – his pain, loneliness, fantasies (his relationship with a female neighbour (Zazie Beetz)) and frustrations at being outcast by a society that would rather mock than understand. This made it such a raw and bruising viewing experience for me, and whilst I did empathise with Arthur, I pitied him but was also very afraid of him and for him.

Because of that, I am unsure whether Phillips is presenting a cautionary tale to raise awareness of ignorance towards and official support for mental health patients, of if he as simply exploiting it to give Arthur a much darker, damaged psychological profile to make him a modern villain in line with today’s edgier comic book movie output. I would hope it is the former but Hollywood hasn’t always been classy in this situation.

As reflected by the many awards he received, Joaquin Phoenix delivers a performance of lifetime, such a richly layered portrayal of a tortured soul trying to fit in, complimented by his physical preparation of losing almost 4 stone to make his frame creepily spindly, a visual accent is essential in enhancing Joker’s uniquely unhinged presence.

I can see why some may not be enamoured with Joker if they are expecting a comic book film which it actively eschews to be. I enjoyed for that very reason, finding it a very well made film but I can’t decide on which side its commentary on mental health falls, which is a little disconcerting.  

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