Excellent. A Joker origin story as expected, but pleasantly meaty, gritty, realistic, violent, and even believable, all while tugging real emotions under recognizable circumstances you’d be afraid to admit to your best friends. It was barely fiction, with most settings and elements pulled from real headlines. I cheated and checked the special features, thankfully agreeing with commentaries and interviews. On a technical note, I was amazed how some simple sets were mostly CG, while the complexities of all Gotham were digital mattes; I assumed city shots were filmed in some basic and crusty neighbourhoods but it was only the tight-framed scenes, leaving horizons, elevations, graffiti, and probably a lot of street garbage to the computer.
Arthur Fleck is brought to life brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix, so I can finally forgive him for “I’m Still Here,” which I choose to recall, now, as unfortunate performance art. He’s done many good things before and after, but I never forgave his disruptive talk show appearance. It was probably staged but it wasn’t art, it was just bad and rude. I think it’s also obvious, like most great performances, that Joaquin fuelled his Joker fire with some shared memories and recognition of Arthur’s history.
We pay to share the Joker’s path, starting with a boatload of sympathy for a guy struggling with a bad hand: physical scarring, mental illness, mental abuse and harassment, violence, neurological disorder, broken family, unemployed and broke, and in the worst time at the worst place in recent history, all while responsible and caring for his ailing mother. He almost made it, and you might find yourself cheering for him. It’s barely disguised that Gotham is 1981 NYC; I guessed mid-‘70s, but I wasn’t there. As the path extended, we strung together the stressors that fully formed the Joker, and we gradually shifted from feeling sympathy to observing sociopathy. Unfortunately, if you stepped over the line into empathy you went too far, and will end up giving Joker 4/5 stars instead of 5. Don’t compare Arthur Fleck to your own life or your disgust will make it hard to enjoy the film.
It was also amazing how they dovetailed Joker stories with Batman canon, while completely original and not reworked from graphic novels. Joker was born as a film, which might explain its brilliance, not tied down by outside forces. Can't unsee comics or a dozen previous Jokers, so it's hard to know if this film stands alone very well. When it did respect the comics, it added unexpected twists and evoked emotional connections, stayed in its period, and still had legs to reflect modern societal foibles. In the end, the Joker we left with was the Joker we recognise, after enjoying the ride to Arkham Asylum.