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Movie Spotlight: Joker(2019) starring Joaquin Phoenix

By: David M. Higgins II

Joker is a 2019 American psychological thriller film directed by Todd Phillips, who co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver. The film, based on DC Comics characters, stars Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker. An origin story set in 1981, the film follows Arthur Fleck, a failed stand-up comedian who turns to a life of crime and chaos in Gotham City. Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, and Marc Maron appear in supporting roles. Joker was produced by DC Films, Village Roadshow Pictures, Bron Creative, and Joint Effort, and distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.

Phillips conceived Joker in 2016 and wrote the script with Silver throughout 2017. The two were inspired by 1970s character studies and the films of Martin Scorsese, who was initially attached to the project as a producer. The graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) was the basis for the premise, but Phillips and Silver otherwise did not look to specific comics for inspiration. Phoenix became attached in February 2018 and was cast that July, while the majority of the cast signed on by August. Principal photography took place in New York City, Jersey City, and Newark, from September to December 2018. It is the first live-action Batman film to receive an R-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, due to its violent and disturbing content.

Joker premiered at the 76th Venice International Film Festival on August 31, 2019, where it won the Golden Lion. It was released in the United States on October 4, 2019. The film received generally positive, albeit polarized, reviews; while Phoenix’s performance was praised, the dark tone, portrayal of mental illness, and handling of violence divided critics. Joker also generated concerns of inspiring real-world violence; the movie theater where the 2012 Aurora, Colorado mass shooting occurred during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises refused to show it. The film has grossed $258.1 million worldwide and set box office records for an October release.

Plot

In 1981, party clown Arthur Fleck lives with his mother, Penny, in Gotham City. Gotham is rife with crime and unemployment, leaving segments of the population disenfranchised and impoverished. Arthur suffers from a neurological disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times and depends on a social services worker for medication. After a gang attacks him in an alley, Arthur’s co-worker, Randall, loans him a gun. Arthur invites his neighbor, single mother Sophie, to his stand-up comedy show, and they begin dating.

While entertaining at a children’s hospital, Arthur’s gun falls out of his pocket. Arthur is fired and Randall lies that Arthur bought the gun himself. On the subway, still in his clown makeup, Arthur is beaten by three drunken Wayne Enterprises businessmen; he shoots two in self-defense and executes the third. The murders are condemned by billionaire mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne, who labels those envious of more successful people as “clowns”. Demonstrations against Gotham’s rich begin, with protesters donning clown masks in Arthur’s image. Funding cuts shutter the social service program, leaving Arthur without medication.

Arthur’s comedy show goes poorly; he laughs uncontrollably and has difficulty delivering his jokes. Talk show host Murray Franklin mocks Arthur by showing clips from the routine on his show. Arthur intercepts a letter written by Penny to Thomas, alleging that he is Thomas’s illegitimate son, and berates his mother for hiding the truth. At Wayne Manor, Arthur talks to Thomas’ young son, Bruce, but flees after a scuffle with butler Alfred Pennyworth. Following a visit from two Gotham City Police Department detectives investigating Arthur’s involvement in the train murders, Penny suffers a stroke and is hospitalized.

At a public event, Arthur confronts Thomas, who tells him that Penny is delusional. In denial, Arthur visits Arkham State Hospital and steals Penny’s case file; the file says Penny adopted Arthur as a baby and allowed her abusive boyfriend to harm them both. Penny alleged that Thomas used his influence to fabricate the adoption and commit her to the asylum to hide their affair. Distraught, Arthur goes to the hospital and kills Penny. He enters Sophie’s apartment unannounced. Frightened, Sophie tells him to leave; their previous encounters are revealed to have been Arthur’s delusions.

Arthur is invited to appear on Murray’s show due to the unexpected popularity of his routine clips. As he prepares, he is visited by his former co-workers Gary and Randall. Arthur murders Randall but leaves Gary unharmed for treating Arthur well in the past. En route to the studio, Arthur is pursued by the two detectives onto a train filled with clown protesters. One accidentally shoots a protester and incites a riot while Arthur escapes in the chaos.

Before the show goes live, Arthur requests that Murray introduce him as Joker, a reference to Murray’s previous mockery. Arthur walks out to a warm reception, but begins telling morbid jokes, admits that he killed the men on the train, and rants about how society abandons the disfranchised and how Murray mocked him. Arthur kills Murray live on television and is arrested as riots break out across Gotham; one rioter corners the Wayne family in an alley and murders Thomas and his wife Martha, sparing Bruce. Rioters in an ambulance crash into the police car carrying Arthur and free him. He dances to the cheers of the crowd and uses his blood to paint a smile on his face.

In an interview room in Arkham State Hospital, Arthur laughs to himself and tells his psychiatrist she would not understand the joke. Leaving, he is chased by an orderly, leaving a trail of bloodied footprints.

Critical Response:

On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 69% based on 437 reviews, with an average rating of 7.29/10. The site’s critical consensus reads: “Joker gives its infamous central character a chillingly plausible origin story that serves as a brilliant showcase for its star – and a dark evolution for comics-inspired cinema.” 

Metacritic, which uses a weighted average, assigned the film a score of 58 out of 100 based on 57 critics, indicating “mixed or average reviews”. 

Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of “B+” on an A+ to F scale, while those at PostTrak gave it an overall positive score of 84% (with an average 4 out of 5 stars) and a 60% “definite recommend.”

Mark Kermode of The Observer, rated the film 4 out of 5 stars, stating that, “Joker has an ace card in the form of Joaquin Phoenix’s mesmerizingly physical portrayal of a man who would be king.”

Writing for IGN, Jim Vejvoda gave Joker a perfect score, writing the film “would work just as well as an engrossing character study without any of its DC Comics trappings; that it just so happens to be a brilliant Batman-universe movie is the icing on the Batfan cake.” He found it a powerful and unsettling allegory of contemporary neglect and violence, and described Phoenix’s performance as the Joker as engrossing and “Oscar-worthy”. 

Similarly, Xan Brooks of The Guardian who also gave the film a perfect score—called it “gloriously daring and explosive” and appreciated how Phillips used elements from Scorsese films to create an original story.

Variety‘s Owen Gleiberman wrote: “Phoenix is astonishing as a mentally ill geek who becomes the killer-clown Joker in Todd Phillips’ neo-Taxi Driver knockout: the rare comic-book movie that expresses what’s happening in the real world.”


Find it in Theaters:

Lexington Exchange Movies 12

AMC Lexington Park 6

Flagship Premium Cinemas, Calvert Village

Xscape Theaters, Brandywine

AMC St. Charles Town Center 9


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