Like everybody else, I recently visited my local cinema to watch Todd Phillips’ “Joker”, I decided to make some notes on the bus home and then return them a few days later once I’d had time to think on them. I’ll get this right out there by stating that I really quite liked the movie, sure it hangs off of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, but thats why you hire an actor of Phoenix’s calibre, its rare he phones in a performance and the majority of the time you find yourself watching him rather than everyone else in the film, I for one think Gladiator would have been a much poorer film without his casting.
I think it goes without saying that from this point on there are alot of spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet and don’t want to know what happens, then stop reading now.
There’s a widely held belief that Joker is about a man who suffers from a variety of mental health issues and potentially has a personality disorder that is pushed over the edge and becomes The Joker. I can see exactly why people think that, its the story thats being told throughout the film, but I put it to you, who is telling the story? Is it Arthur Fleck or is it The Joker?
I think its the latter.
Whilst this is a standalone movie at this point, and this can often be the case with the medium the character is taken from, with many different writers and film makers over the decades offering their own take on The Clown Prince of Crime. However one constant is that we have never really been told the characters origins. Sure there are parallels with Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. A guy, down on his luck anyway, struggling to cut out a career as a comedian, goes through a period of time where things get worse and worse for him. In the case of The Killing Joke its one bad day, with Joker its prolonged over a few days or weeks.
So why do I think its The Joker himself telling this story and how do I think this is revealed.
There are a few things that contribute to this. The most obvious point is his relationship with his neighbour Sophie, as everyone is aware, there is no relationship, as we see when Arthur lets himself into her apartment and when she discovers him there she (justifiably) freaks out. The one sided element of this relationship is really driven (or heavily hammered) home later in the film when we are shown a few scenes where the two had been together which would then flick to show she wasn’t in those moments with Arthur at all.
There’s alot of serial killer tropes being ticked here too: Lives at home with his Mother, has no friends, people at work creeped out by him, his job isn’t a Regular Joe kind of job, a history of mental health issues; one of which weirds people out, abused as a child, no Father figure, obsesses over false idols, creates false relationships and fantasy scenarios.
There’s a sense that he over embellishes. I’ve seen a few complaints that the scene on the TV show goes on too long and I think thats entirely the point, he quite clearly likes telling a tale and the longer he can keep this going the more attention he gets.
Then we get onto his history and the tie in to the DC Universe, Arthur Fleck is the illegitimate love child of Thomas Wayne and one of his employee’s (Penny Fleck) thus making him the half brother of his ultimate nemesis, Bruce Wayne aka Batman. Add in that the final riot just so happens to take place, and is kind of the cover for, the murder of the Waynes and it places the Joker’s story as being “aah thats why he and Batman were destined to face off against each other time and again”, some have labelled this as a lazy tie in to the rest of this particular universe and I totally get that, I think its a lazy embellishment on The Jokers part.
So, how did I come to this conclusion? Mostly due to the final scenes where The Joker is talking to a psychiatrist in what I presume is Arkham State Hospital, we cut to this at the moment The Joker is being worshipped by a mass of people in clown masks, he tells a joke that the psychiatrist thinks is awful whilst the viewer is tricked into believing that she is the Social Worker we saw Arthur talking to repeatedly earlier in the film (though it is two different actresses who do look very different from each other).
All of this shows us that Phoenix’s Joker, like Heath Ledgers Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and Alan Moore’s Joker, is an unreliable story teller, the inconsistencies, fabrications and embellishments create a tale that from very early on feels incredibly surreal, that it shares a similar tone to Martin Scorsese’s Robert De Niro vehicle Taxi Driver only further cements my feelings in this regard, and I kind of feel that the casting of De Niro as Fleck’s idol/father figure in this whole scenario is purposefully done.
Of course, I could be giving Todd Phillips too much credit with all of this.