Is it weird to describe a movie as beautiful? More specifically, is it weird to describe Joker as beautiful? For such a grimy movie set in the 80’s, and starring the ever-creepy Joaquin Phoenix no less, it was executed in a surprisingly romantic and gorgeous fashion.
Naturally, I imagined that this movie would serve as the Joker’s origin story. But I wasn’t sure how such an origin story could be pulled off; after all, isn’t the point of the character that we don’t know exactly what made him so deranged?
There was also a part of me that didn’t want a definitive backstory for this character, as the mystery added to his mystique. I felt conflicted between wanting to know the details of the Joker’s life and wanting them to remain a question mark.
We open with Gotham City in pretty dire straits; businesses are closing, people are mad at the fat cats, and there is general unpleasantness in the air (why are the 80s always depicted as such a miserable time?). Clowns are outside various storefronts holding up clearance signs. Weird sales strategy but ok.
A bunch of no-good teenagers steal the sign of one clown (who we learn is Joaquin Phoenix), and he runs after them to get it back. This futile chase ends with him getting beaten up pretty badly, reinforcing my belief that teenagers are the absolute worst. It’s a pretty depressing, grim scene, and sets audiences up to have immediate sympathy for the character.
The next scene isn’t much more jolly; we cut to Joaquin Phoenix uncontrollably laughing, yet simultaneously looking like he’s going to cry. It’s a weird, uncomfortable scene and all I wanted was for him to stop laughing. When he finally does, we see that he’s in a meeting with a government therapist/social worker-type person asking him how he’s feeling lately (short answer: not good). She refers to him as Arthur, which is just plain weird to hear. Admittedly not knowing the nitty gritty about the Joker, I have no idea whether his name has always been Arthur, or whether it was made up for this movie. In any case, it’s jarring to hear.
During this scene with his social worker, we don’t see a villain but rather, a lonely man with undeniable depression. It’s uncomfortable seeing depression that up close , and hearing him say what so many struggling people know to be true: he has negative thoughts all. the. time. This scene sets the stage for what would turn out to be a much-needed commentary on life with mental illness, and the consequences of a society that turns its back on the marginalized.
Writing in his journal in one scene, Arthur delivers arguably the most profound statement of the movie: “The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” Beautiful, poetic, accurate, yet heartbreaking.
This admittedly feels a little bit too on the nose in our current mental health-focused climate; back in the 80s, I’m not entirely sure that the phrase “mental illness” was even used. But I enjoyed the focus on this topic nonetheless, and the movie does a decent job of depicting what it’s like to live with mental illness in a society that cuts social service funding.
Throughout the movie, we see a surprisingly childlike, innocent side to Arthur; a gentle soul who helps his ailing mother, has aspirations of becoming a comedian and dreams of meeting his talk-show host idol (played fabulously by Robert DeNiro, a surprise treat in this movie). This side of Arthur caused me to feel almost maternally protective of him when learning that his uncontrollable laughter is actually a medical condition caused by damage to his brain (and what a laugh it is — creepy, sad and unsettling to listen to. Well done, Joaquin).
Unlike most origin stories, there isn’t a defined moment, or even a clear series of moments, that truly explain the Joker’s downward spiral. Sure, he has bad luck. But one fateful night on the subway, while dressed up in his clown outfit, he’s harassed by three Wall Street-type bros, causing him to snap. He shoots them without getting caught, and what happens next is one of the most beautiful scenes in the movie: with a dramatic score playing, he begins to dance. Effortlessly (if not slightly awkwardly), he moves his body to a stunning piece of music that has since been on repeat on my Spotify playlist. It’s totally unexpected but somehow, it just works.
The dance sequences continue throughout the movie as Arthur morphs into his alter ego and incites protests by the ordinary folks of Gotham. Unintentionally, Arthur’s killings highlighted the rich-poor gap, and his clown getup, spotted by a witness to the murders, quickly becomes an iconic symbol throughout the city. Soon enough, protesters are donning their own clown masks and outfits as they rally against the rich , including the Thomas Wayne.
The movie ends with Arthur, now having fully leaned into his Joker side, killing his talk show idol while on air, being embraced as a saviour by the protesters, and ultimately getting locked away in an asylum (the Arkham State Hospital, which interestingly enough, has not become the Arkham Asylum yet). To close out the movie, we’re left with the impression that he killed the psychologist with him in the final scene , as indicated by his bloody footprints as he walks out to a nice, old-timey song.
“Bloody footprints and an old-timey song” is a good summary of the entire movie — dark but comedic; heavy subject matter against an innocent protagonist. The music switches between a beautiful, orchestral score and light-hearted music from the 1950’s. It’s this juxtaposition that elevates Joker from a mere movie into a gorgeous work of art.
The acting? Incredible. Joaquin Phoenix delivers an amazing performance that has all but guaranteed him the top acting award this year (though truly, I’m not sure that he had to do much “acting”, but that’s neither here nor there). The cinematography and score were equally impressive.
Batman fans will also enjoy the glimpse of a young Bruce Wayne, and the classic murder scene with his parents featuring that iconic pearl necklace. Though was I the only one surprised by the age gap between the Joker and Bruce Wayne/Batman?
However, I concede that plot itself did leave something to be desired, with not much actually happening in the movie. It also left sprinkles of unanswered questions – did Arthur kill his lady friend neighbor, Sophie? (The sirens in the next scene certainly implied as much)*. Did Arthur actually kill the psychologist in the final scene? (His bloody footprints afterwards also implied as much). What exactly happened to him throughout his life to cause the downwards spiral? Beyond a brief reference to his abusive stepdad and being tied to a radiator (sheesh), we simply don’t know very much.
And that may have been the point of the whole movie – while we have flashes of information, glimpses into his past, and assumptions that we can make, we don’t know anything for sure. Who knows whether these gaps were intentional or simply due to sloppy writing; nonetheless, the end result leaves viewers with little more information than they walked in with, ensuring that the Joker continues to remain an enigma.
If you’re looking for a movie with a rich plot and a definitive backstory about the Joker, this won’t be it. But if you’re looking for the beautiful love child between an artsy indie movie and a comic book character, Joker is the movie for you.
*Note: After researching the matter, I see that the director confirmed that Sophie was indeed alive at the end of the movie. He also confirmed that the entire relationship between Sophie and Arthur was a delusion in Arthur’s head, something that I missed entirely when watching the movie.