Clowns are creepy, but Phoenix’s Joker takes uncomfortable to a new level

"Smile, and put on a happy face."

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The iconic arch nemesis of Batman is an original, standalone fictional story not seen before on the big screen. The story of Arthur Fleck, who is brilliantly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, is of a man struggling to find his path in Gotham’s fractured society. A clown-for-hire by day, he aspires to be a stand-up comic at night, but finds himself being the object of most jokes. While stuck in a cycle between indifference and brutality, Arthur makes one bad decision that brings a chain reaction of soaring violent events in this grim character sketch.

It’s easy for viewers to empathize with his desire to be loved, without empathizing with him. When he says he feels invisible, it’s clear why: he’s the kind of person people look away from on the street. “I just don’t want to feel so bad anymore,” Arthur says simply at one point. He’s a relatable kind of villain in the beginning, being somewhat harmless and sad.

For much of its screen time, Joker is a film that deals with ugly themes, visually and emotionally. Arthur starts with a form of family, and he gradually learns he never had one to begin with. Everything about the cinematographic storytelling- the ominous sound score; grungy streets lined with trash; Arthur’s neglected home— it all has an overpowering feel to it. It’s horrifying to watch as he grows from fragile hope into increasingly confident acts of destruction.

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While the film is more harrowingly hopeless than anything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it offers up an alternate reality just as clearly as any superhero film does: the fantasy of going from powerlessness to power and of being feared and adored at the same time. The film delivers said message largely by setting the film in a world where Arthur has no choice but violence, and no escape but madness after desperately trying to fit in for so long. He’s unfortunately learned that the world is a joke, and nothing matters.

Arthur Fleck is portrayed as a darkened truth-teller because society has had his way with him, and he eagerly jumps at the chance to have his way with society. On the one hand, Arthur is a murderous psychopath who can’t tell jokes and has a deeply unsettling laugh; On the other hand, he is depicted as a justified vigilante, forcing a society that previously cast him aside to witness his warpath. “They don’t give a shit about you… and they don’t give a shit about me either,” his social worker tells him at one point. These starkly contrasting elements are a part of what distinguishes this film. All in all, Joker does a brilliant job of showcasing a reality of what happens when ostracized individuals reach a point of no return.