Warner Bros. Pictures’ new critically acclaimed drama “Joker,” the winner of this year’s Golden Lion (equivalent to Best Picture) at the Venice Film Festival, is an original, standalone origin of this infamous character, the tale of an atmosphere of unrest fostering a man on the brink who, like his city—and likely, because of it—grows closer to the precipice.
This is not the Gotham, nor the Joker, one would recognize from 80 years of established storytelling depicted on the page or screen.
Directed, co-written and produced by Todd Phillips, “Joker” is the filmmaker’s original vision of the infamous DC villain, an origin story infused with, but distinctly outside, the character’s more traditional mythologies. Phillips’ exploration of Arthur Fleck, who is indelibly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, is of a man struggling to find his way in Gotham’s fractured society. Longing for any light to shine on him, he tries his hand as a stand-up comic, but finds the joke always seems to be on him. Caught in a cyclical existence between apathy and cruelty and, ultimately, betrayal, Arthur makes one bad decision after another that brings about a chain reaction of escalating events in this gritty, allegorical character study.
Phillips allows, “I love the complexity of Joker and felt his origin would be worth exploring on film, since nobody’s done that and even in the canon he has no formalized beginning. So, Scott Silver and I wrote a version of a complex and complicated character, and how he might evolve…and then devolve. That is what interested me—not a Joker story, but the story of becoming Joker.”
The film features just enough Gotham landmarks, deftly woven into its grimy landscape, to situate the audience and allow star Joaquin Phoenix’s hypnotically raw performance to evoke the requisite emotions to take this journey with Arthur through the city’s—and eventually his own—darker side. “One of the themes we wanted to explore with the movie is empathy and, more importantly, the lack of empathy that is present in so much of Arthur’s world,” Phillips states.
“For example,” he continues, “in the movie you see the difference in the way little kids and adults react to Arthur, because kids see the world through no lens; they don’t see rich versus poor or understand a marginalized individual the way adults do. They just see Arthur as a guy who’s trying to make them smile. It’s not inherent, we have to learn how to be unaccepting of others and, unfortunately, we usually do.”
Silver says, “He starts out just wanting to make people laugh, trying to put a smile on their faces. That’s why he’s a clown, why he dreams of becoming a stand-up comic. He just wants to bring some joy into the world. But then the toxic environment of Gotham breaks him down—the lack of compassion and empathy, the loss of civility… That’s what creates our Joker.”
The Arthur that Phillips and Silver created is caught in a cyclical existence of misread cues. Even Arthur’s uncontrollable, inappropriate laughter, which gains momentum as he attempts to contain it, garners no sympathy from those he encounters in his daily life, exposing him to further ridicule and alienation from Gotham society. “Nowadays, what he has is a recognized syndrome, but in the time our story is set, it was not really diagnosed, though it was a real condition,” the filmmaker explains.
Phoenix concedes that, even during filming, “There were times when I found myself feeling for him, even feeling like I understood his motivation, and in the next moment I would be repulsed by the decisions he made. Playing this character was challenging for me as an actor, and I knew he would also challenge the audience and their preconceived ideas about the Joker, because in his fictional world, like in our real world, there are no easy answers.”
“We often talk about the tip of the iceberg, but we rarely speak about what’s underneath—about what gets you there,” Phillips asserts. “Arthur is the guy you see on the street who you walk right past…or over. With this movie we’re hoping to get a peek at what’s below the surface.”
In Philippine cinemas Thursday, October 3, “Joker” is distributed in the Philippines by Warner Bros. Pictures, a WarnerMedia Company.