One Liner Review:
A dark origin tale for the notorious Batman villain, this movie starts out okay, but gets better and better as it goes on and big things start happening for the character. This is one of those movies that is actually better on a second viewing, and that’s a testament to just how smart and deep it is.
A pretty fantastic reimagining of the Joker story, this movie takes bits and pieces from other films (Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy,) and sets them in a dark and depraved world where you can believe that The Joker got his start. Here we have the story of Arthur, a failed clown who dreams of being a stand up comic, but just can’t find any luck. He’s got it hard, and things only get worse for him as the film goes on. That’s where the plots digs deeper into a Arthur’s past, and the mysteries really start to unfold.
Now this is a powerhouse of a movie. It’s dark, depressing, and still filled with wild criminal energy. How they pulled this off is pretty remarkable. Especially when it also deals with one of the most iconic characters of all time, and when Heath Ledger has already won an Oscar for playing the role seriously. But they did it. And they did it by truly giving us an origin story of a character who never wanted anything more than happiness, as he is forced to watch the world around him crumble. You really feel for this character and understand him, and perhaps that’s the biggest accomplishment of all.
What they, (and by they I mean Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix, the writer / director and the star,) did here is they made a sympathetic antihero of sorts, out of the Joker. Now this is no “secretly a good guy,” vigilante movie. It’s not Venom, where the worst thing the protagonist does is steal some secrets from a a really bad guy. The Joker is a killer. And he doesn’t kill only murderers. The Joker kills people with a gray side to them. That means people who have done something to cross him, whether they spread a rumor about him, made something up about him, physically beat him up, or just made fun of him.
But before he does any of that, he is just Arthur, a simple dim-witted guy who just wants to be happy. He enjoys his job, as a clown. It requires him to stand around on busy streets twirling signs, or visit children’s hospitals trying to make sick kids smile and laugh. Arthur’s lifelong dream is to be a stand-up comic. Only nobody thinks he’s funny. The other clowns and performers he works with think he’s weird, (as we learn from Arthur’s boss.) Even his mother, who Arthur lives with and takes are of, tells him he’s not funny. But Arthur doesn’t give up. He just uses this to fuel his anger.
And boy does he have a lot of that. A large portion of this movie is spent showing us just how hard Arthur’s life is and how bad things are for him. The movie opens with that twirling a sign on the sidewalk scene. And Arthur gets the sign stolen from him by a pack of kids, runs after them, chases them into an alley, and gets beaten up. Then when he gets back to work, his boss wants to know why he left the job of working the sidewalk. Arthur tells him he got jumped and was in the hospital, and the boss doesn’t believe him. All he cares about is getting the sign back, insisting that Arthur stole it and that the cost will be taken out of his paycheck.
One of the other clowns talks to Arthur about getting jumped. He tells Arthur how unsafe it is, and ends up giving Arthur a gun. And then when Arthur gets attacked again, this time on a train, he makes sure to use that gun, killing his three attackers. But let’s back track for a moment to talk about why he got attacked on the train. Arthur has a laughing condition. He starts laughing out loud sometimes for no reason at all. And it is a really fantastic laugh. When it happens on a bus, Arthur ends up handing a woman a laminated card that explains this. It tells her the condition he has causes his facial expressions and sound to not match the way he really feels. And so when he starts laughing on the subway car, as these three stock brokers harass a woman, the guys turn their attention on him. That’s when they beat him up and then get themselves shot and killed.
And this is where Arthur becomes the Joker. Not fully formed or anything, but it’s when he first transforms into a killer. He leaves the subway platform and ducks into a men’s room where he does a very strange transformative dance. And now Arthur has more confidence. He bursts into the apartment of a neighbor he had been flirting with and starts making out with her. He does stand-up comedy at an open mic for the first time. And he decides to dig deeper into his mother’s obsession with Thomas Wayne, father of Bruce Wayne, the man who will one day become Batman.
The connections to Bruce Wayne are a welcome addition into this movie. In the world we are living in, these days, filled with Easter eggs and shared universes, you don’t exactly need something like this (the only thing Venom included that had to do with world building was in the post credits scene,) but it certainly helps. Here, the movie finds a unique angle to show why Arthur would have a hatred of Bruce Wayne. It also gives us a new take on the events that would lead to the deaths of Wayne’s parents.
Getting through the maze of conspiracy that leads Arthur to target Thomas Wayne involves him investigating his mother. And in doing so, he also learns a lot about himself. In one great scene, Arthur goes to Arkham Asylum, which is not exactly called that here, but certainly references it. It’s there that he comes across a worker in the records room, (played by the great Brian Tyree Henry from the show Atlanta, which also stars Zazie Beetz the woman who plays Arthur’s love interest in this film.) Arthur wrestles away the records from the worker and runs from the room, down the hall, and into the stairwell, where he reads the records and discovers the truth. Or is it? Thomas Wayne is a powerful man and could have easily had records falsified. It’s one reason why you never know what to believe in this movie. Another is the ending, where it is revealed that perhaps none of this ever happened at all.
But assuming it did, there’s a hell of a lot to like here. This movie has created more than a character study. It has also created a world. Gotham is a take on New York City in the seventies and eighties. This movie has drawn references to Taxi Driver and the King of Comedy, (two great Martin Scorcese movies, both starting Robert DeNiro.) Well, DeNiro is here too, and he plays Murray Abrahms, the late night talk show host who everybody loves. Murray is kind of like a Jewish take on Jay Leno, complete right corny jokes, (“giant rats,” “you could say that again,” “you should have listened to your mother.”) It is through Murray, through tv news broadcasts, and through listening to the radio that we learn about whether is going on around Gotham, and there is a lot in the news.
From the opening scene, where Arthur sits at a table putting on his makeup with the radio playing in the background, we learn of how horrid the city has become with giant heaps of garbage everywhere, and enormous rats. We also learn of how Thomas Wayne is running for local government, and how he represents the wealthy at a time when social class rebellion is at an all time high. When asked about the subway murders of those stock brokers, By a man dressed as a clown, Wayne says anyone who wears a mask is a clown, and these people who complain about their lives but don’t do anything to better themselves, are all clowns. This leads to the clown monicker becoming a symbol. Like in V for Vendetta, suddenly this movie becomes a story about social class issues and riots. And it only gets bigger with the Joker appearing on Murray’s show for the climax. Between the character study, the social class issues, and the mystery angle of digging into his past, this movie has a hell of a story to tell and does a pretty great job telling it.