Joker, the movie, is very much like a detailed sculpture that was crafted by a true master craftsman. I've been reflecting on what I experienced for almost a day now, and find myself still peeling layers and identifying new ways to interpret the film. From this perspective, I dare call this sculpture a masterpiece. But for sure I don't want to have this sculpture in my living room... or even see it again!
First, let me preface this review by saying that I am a hardcore fan of the Batman mythology and hence, better-versed in the history of Joker than the general public. I have read most (if not all) of the seminal Joker stories, and consider The Killing Joke (by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland) and Mad Love (by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm) to be the top two defining character studies. One thing that both have in common is depicting the Joker's chaotic thought process vividly. A key quote from the Killing Joke, by the Joker, is: "if I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!". The Mad Love also shows how Joker fabricates different stories in order to manipulate others - in that particular case, his mark was his psychiatrist, Dr. Harleen Quinzel who later transformed into Harley Quinn. Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight also adopted this in Joker's characterization. Case in point: "You wanna know how I got these scars?"
I initially had an apprehension towards the 2019 movie thinking that the "multiple choice" aspect of Joker's past is going to be lost with a movie focusing solely on the character's origin. While the movie covers one cohesive story line, it makes the viewer question what part of it was real and what was in Arthur Fleck's mind. His name even could be a sad joke, implying that he was just a fleck of little to no significance.
The Arthur in this story is a mental health patient who laughs uncontrollably when he gets emotional (happy, sad, nervous, or stressed) and lives with his ailing mother, Penny. He earns a living as a party clown working for the HaHa agency in the rougher parts of Gotham City. After the city cuts down the budget on social services, Arthur is left without professional support and access to his medication.
On one bad day (referring to the theme from The Killing Joke), Arthur is fired from the agency for taking a gun to a children's hospital - a gun that maybe a colleague gave it to him or maybe he bought it himself... On a train ride, three businessmen pick on Arthur. He kills two of them in self-defence and chases after the third one on an empty train and catches up with him in an empty station to shoot him in point blank. The murders are reported in the press in the following days - some call it an abhorrent crime by a serial killer, and some call it vigilante justice by the disenfranchised...
The two other plot threads that we follow before the third act are the romantic relationship that Arthur establishes with his neighbour, and also the information about Arthur's parentage and childhood. The final act takes a leap of faith in how Arthur instigates a revolution in the city, but again, we are just seeing what Arthur sees.
The themes of ambiguity and unreliable narration make it much in line with Joker's personality and chaotic mind. The audience is left questioning how much of it was real, and how much of it was actually happening in Joker's mind. One clue that I'm certain was not accidental was two clocks (one in the asylum in the very beginning of the movie, and one at the HaHa agency) showing 11:11 - the exact time that many people make a wish upon noticing. Is it all wishful thinking inside Arthur's mind? Was he at the mental hospital the whole time? Or did most of it actually happen? Well... a good Joker story keeps it multiple choice!
Joaquin Phoenix's acting is certainly Oscar worthy. The pain in his eyes, the laughs (from crying laughs to the one that was actually genuine), the body language to the the way he ran, are all going to be studied by acting students for many years to come! Todd Phillips is also deserving of all the praise that he's receiving for his masterful direction. He was a writer and producer on the film as well!
It might be obvious from all the praise that I consider this film a masterpiece and worthy of a 10/10 score! However, it was an uncomfortable experience and I may never watch it again. I only recommend it to true fans of the character, and those who appreciate a finely crafted character study (although very disturbing).