By Anna Husted EBS FILM CRITIC
While most critics have blasted Todd Phillips’ “Joker” as gratuitous, I stand with the audiences and their reviews, which scored the film with a resounding 89 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
And for good reason: “Joker” is perceptive (and timely) in its themes of classism and societal abuse, and progressive in its long-takes and directorial homages to Martin Scorsese and David Fincher.
“Joker” is not a superhero movie but is an inquiry into one man’s experience in a society with a growing class divide and dwindling empathy for the condition of fellow humans. Said man is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), who suffers from an unspecified mental illness where he laughs uncontrollably when he is nervous, uncomfortable, or in a situation that calls for tears. Phillips’ decision to keep the illness vague is important because it respects mental illness and maintains the Joker’s nebulous past, which is important to the comic books and character.
By day, Fleck works as a clown performing for kids or twirling signs for warehouse sales. At night, he longs to be a stand-up comedian like his idol and late-night host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro).
We slowly uncover clues that Arthur was neglected as a child because his mother suffers from a mental illness as well, and that due to his own illness and impoverished state he continues to be neglected by the system.
While humanity has not quite reached the depths of Gotham’s grotesque inquietude, New York City came awfully close in the 1980s, and while he is not attacked by thugs, and rather by drunk, young financiers, Arthur stands up for himself by shooting them. It’s an act that takes Gotham by storm, instigating city-wide riots demanding class equality.
The grittiness of the subway and back alleys reflects Scorsese’s New York City in “Mean Streets” and “The King of Comedy.” The stand-up comedian and late-night host plot line draw directly from “The King of Comedy” but with richer and darker characters than its predecessor.
Phillips also draws direct parallels to Fincher’s “Fight Club” in the main character’s love for violent self-expression and in its anti-consumerism motif. We pity and root for Arthur in the first half of the film because he has no one on his side. It is not until he becomes Joker that he is comfortable as himself and we are finally disturbed by his transformation from the victim to the monster of the city.
The transition from Arthur to Joker happens in two long takes following Arthur up a particular, and now iconic, set of steps in the city. The first time we see these steps they make for an oppressive climb for Arthur, who has just been beaten up by a group of kids. The second long take shows Arthur dancing down these steps now as a nonchalant Joker to Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2.” He gets his “Rocky” moment, but his success and happiness are directly tied to violent revenge.
“Joker” usurps the superhero genre. Its anti-hero is more complex than any hero we have seen on screen. Phillips and Phoenix’s remarkable contribution created a film that will transcend the superhero genre and contribute to films for years to come.
“Joker” is now playing in theaters.
Anna Husted has a master’s in film studies from New York University. In Big Sky she can be found skiing or at the movies at Lone Peak Cinema. When not gazing at the silver screen or watching her new favorite TV show, she’s reading, fishing or roughhousing with her cat, Indiana Jones.