by KRISTOFER PURNELL
In the 1988 graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore, readers get to see one of the most interesting origin stories for Batman’s greatest villain, the Joker. Toward the climax of the comic, however, the Joker tells his old nemesis, “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” thus highlighting the Joker’s status as an unreliable narrator.
As such, numerous stories have erupted about how the Joker came to be, like his history being the Red Hood, or simply a mad clown from the circus. In this year’s Joker, directed by Todd Phillips (The Hangover trilogy), viewers dive into an almost familiar story, like The Killing Joke only this time the traumatic effects of being sidelined by society take its toll on the would-be Clown Prince of Crime—in the end leaving us wondering how possible this origin story could be, or how true it can be for us living in today’s society.
While the movie’s premise is similar to the Joker’s origins in The Killing Joke, Phillips (and fellow screenwriter Scott Silver) insists that the story doesn’t follow any comic book. Rather, what he presents is a story of becoming the character. In the process, Phillips sheds light on people suffering from mental illnesses, more specifically those who are ignored and abused for having such conditions, thus inciting the violence that strikes the titular character.
A number of actors have taken up the mantle—or rather, put on the makeup—of the Joker such as Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, the latter winning an Academy Award for his portrayal in The Dark Knight. For Joker, Phillips turned to another Oscar-caliber actor in Joaquin Phoenix to play Arthur Fleck, whose new take on the Joker is disturbingly amazing, mesmerizing but daring, and dedicated to a fault.
Phoenix follows in Ledger’s footsteps by drawing inspiration from The Man Who Laughs while also studying people suffering from pathological laughter—an eerie trait attributed to the Joker that Phoenix demonstrates with a tremendously disturbing accuracy. Phoenix also shows glimpses of Scorsese characters like in Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, which is capped off by having Robert De Niro in the cast to pay homage to the latter.
A lot of people will challenge the film’s motives, but Phoenix’s performance cannot be denied as he put himself into a familiar character that no one would want to identify with, walking along the thin line of mental illness portrayals with great caution. Phoenix has had a great number of roles, particularly during this decade (Her, You Were Never Really Here) and his take on the Joker can sit comfortably on that list.
Gotham in ruins
Another factor that greatly affects Joker’s story is how the city of Gotham is depicted, thanks to production designer Mark Friedberg and director of photography Lawrence Sher. This idea of Gotham is quite different to the many we have seen before in films, but how Friedberg and Sher collaborate on it plays perfectly to the dark turn that Arthur faces when society gangs up on and neglects him. We have only seen glimpses of Gotham pre-Batman, and Friedberg’s set-up shies away from corruption and simply drops the divide in communities—those who can sustain themselves, and those who suffer when they can’t.
Sher’s camerawork also plays excellently alongside Hildur Guðnadóttir’s musical score. Guðnadóttir is a cellist by profession, and in some sort of homage to Hans Zimmer’s Joker theme in The Dark Knight, she mirrors such an impact for Phoenix’s Arthur. Of particular note is whenever Arthur enters a laughing spell, as if suddenly the entire world turns its eyes on him and the uneasiness creeps in. Another are the instances that Arthur begins dancing around, as if hearing the music Guðnadóttir sets for the scene, for his solitude appears even more distressing, almost interesting to a point.
Phillips’ film is, in some twisted way, brilliant but must be approached with caution. Those who are familiar with the comics will be able to understand the atrocities that lurk in Gotham, but those who aren’t will need a little time to think about just how plausible it is for the ills of society to affect a man. Then again, it could all just be one big joke that only the Joker would understand.