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Movie Spotlight: Joker(2019) starring Joaquin Phoenix

By: David M. Higgins II

Jokeris a 2019 Americanpsychological thrillerfilm directed byTodd Phillips, who co-wrote the screenplay withScott Silver. The film, based onDC Comicscharacters, starsJoaquin Phoenixas theJoker. Anorigin storyset in 1981, the film follows Arthur Fleck, a failed stand-up comedian who turns to a life of crime and chaos inGotham City.Robert De Niro,Zazie Beetz,Frances Conroy,Brett Cullen,Glenn Fleshler,Bill Camp,Shea Whigham, andMarc Maronappear in supporting roles.Jokerwas produced byDC Films,Village Roadshow Pictures,Bron Creative, and Joint Effort, and distributed byWarner Bros. Pictures.

Phillips conceivedJokerin 2016 and wrote the script with Silver throughout 2017. The two were inspired by 1970s character studies and the films ofMartin Scorsese, who was initially attached to the project as a producer. The graphic novelBatman: 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 photographytook place inNew York City,Jersey City, andNewark, from September to December 2018. It is the first live-actionBatmanfilmto receive anR-ratingfrom theMotion Picture Association of America, due to its violent and disturbing content.

Jokerpremiered at the76th Venice International Film Festivalon August 31, 2019, where it won theGolden 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.Jokeralso generated concerns of inspiring real-world violence; the movie theater where the2012 Aurora, Colorado mass shootingoccurred during a screening ofThe Dark Knight Risesrefused to show it. The film has grossed $258.1 million worldwide and set box office records for an October release.

Plot

In 1981,party clownArthur Fleck lives with his mother, Penny, inGotham 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 drunkenWayne Enterprisesbusinessmen; he shoots two in self-defense and executes the third. The murders are condemned by billionaire mayoral candidateThomas 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. AtWayne Manor, Arthur talks to Thomas’ young son,Bruce, but flees after a scuffle with butlerAlfred Pennyworth. Following a visit from twoGotham City Police Departmentdetectives investigating Arthur’s involvement in the train murders, Penny suffers astrokeand is hospitalized.

At a public event, Arthur confronts Thomas, who tells him that Penny is delusional. In denial, Arthur visitsArkham State Hospitaland 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 asJoker, 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 wifeMartha, 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:

Onreview aggregatorwebsiteRotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 69% based on 437 reviews, with anaverage ratingof 7.29/10. The site’s critical consensus reads: “Jokergives 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 byCinemaScoregave the film an average grade of “B+” on an A+ to F scale, while those atPostTrakgave it an overall positive score of 84% (with an average 4 out of 5 stars) and a 60% “definite recommend.”

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

Writing forIGN, Jim Vejvoda gaveJokera 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 ofThe Guardianwho 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‘sOwen Gleibermanwrote: “Phoenix is astonishing as a mentally ill geek who becomes the killer-clown Joker in Todd Phillips’ neo-Taxi Driverknockout: the rare comic-book movie that expresses what’s happening in the real world.”


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David M. Higgins II

David M. Higgins was born in Baltimore and grew up in Southern Maryland. He has had a passion for journalism since high school. After spending many years in the Hospitality Industry he began working in Digital Marketing, eventually leading him back to his passion. David started The Southern Maryland Chronicle in December 2017 and has grown it to become the #1 news source in Southern Maryland.

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