Review: Joker – Arthur Fleck’s slow decline into psychosis

Spoiler Alert: this review discusses Todd Phillips’ new film Joker, stay away from it, in case you don’t want to know the story. Really? You haven’t seen it yet!!

He’s a failed comedian, a clown that gets sacked from a job, which is his only lifeline. You can’t help but feel sorry for Arthur Fleck – played by Joaquin Phoenix – a man so lanky and malnourished looking, that you don’t want to see his bruised body, when he is tending to his wounds.

The first few minutes into Joker, and I was ready to call it quits, because I couldn’t stand to see what the residents of Gotham City were doing to a man, who was trying to fit back into society, earning an honest living and taking care of his ailing mother. He had been recently released from Arkham State Hospital, an infamous asylum for the criminally insane.

An aspiring stand-up comedian, who you know doesn’t stand a chance in making you smile, Arthur Fleck is a man you can empathize with easily, given his circumstances. But you don’t, because you know he is the Joker – Batman’s nemesis. Director Todd Phillips successfully imprints the persona of a helpless man, who is the victim of circumstances, and turns into a revered messiah by default, to the rebellious residents of Gotham City. Phillips succeeds in messing with your mind – and making you consider being soft with the villain.

Arthur’s Story

As the story unfolds, you realize that Arthur could easily be a threat to himself, and he realizes it too. The plot revolves around how Arthur’s mother is keen to get a letter across to Thomas Wayne – Bruce Wayne’s father. It is revealed that the delusional mother has convinced herself that Arthur is the lovechild of Thomas and her, and Arthur discovers this.

In a sub-plot, Arthur is completely smitten and inspired by a late-night television show idol, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). In one scene Phillips shows us a dream-sequence where Arthur ends up at Murray’s show and after performing a piece, Murray hugs Arthur and calls him the son he never had. This shows the depth of Arthur’s admiration for the man.

You connect back to this sequence, when later in the movie, it is revealed that Arthur was physically and emotionally abused by his mother’s boyfriend, when he was a child. A lot of Arthur’s disorders (impulsive laughing) and complexities make sense, once this truth is revealed.  

When Joker Meets Batman

Moving back to the main plot, when Arthur learns that Thomas could potentially be his father, he goes up to the latter’s house. On the playground of the estate, a young Bruce Wayne is shown on the slides, and he notices a man wearing a clown’s nose (Phoenix), trying to engage with him. A security guard steps in, and spoils the moment.

The moment when the to-be-Joker meets the to-be-Batman.

Anyhow, the story moves back and forth between Wayne confronting Arthur with the truth – that he is not his father, and should in fact check the records with Arkham State Hospital about his mother. And the subplot of Murray Franklin inviting Arthur to his Late Night Show. On the sidelines the disparity between the rich and the poor, recent subway killings by clownish person, sparks a spate of unrest in Gotham City.

It all ties in at the end, when Arthur Fleck takes his power back – realizes his potential and acknowledges his menacing personality of being the destructor by default. Like all damaged people, who find solace in blaming the system or circumstances, Joker is no different. He too wants his pound of flesh.  

The ending is open for interpretation. A lot of fan-theories suggest that the entire movie could be a story, or a figment of Arthur’s imagination. We don’t know this for sure, but it definitely makes things a lot more interesting. Do let me know what you think of the movie.