American filmmaker Todd Phillips tries his hand in a serious and realistic take on the DC super-villain, Joker. Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix is a depressing yet entertaining story of the life of Arthur Fleck and how he came to be the chaotic villain that we best know him by. Joker takes place in New York’s seedier district, Gotham City, where Arthur Fleck residents with his mother, Penny Fleck.
The first scene opens with Arthur applying his clown makeup when it transitions into him talking to a psychiatrist. The audience is given a multitude of information about his mental illnesses. We learn that Arthur has uncontrollable laughter, takes seven different medications, and appears very skinny and sickly looking, intended to make the audience uncomfortable. Unfortunately, the hospital treating Arthur lost its funding and was no longer able to provide care for him.
Despite this, the plot did not really kick-off until Arthur got fired from his job was later assaulted on a train. Arthur ends up killing his attackers, and the news of the attacks fuel a lot of hatred within the citizens of Gotham towards the wealthy and powerful, and they begin to adopt the clown persona.
Upon leaving the movie theater, many moviegoers are left wondering what was real and what was just part of Arthur’s fantasy. In my and my fellow spectators’ opinions, Arthur did not receive praise the first time he appeared the Murray Franklin Show, and his relationship with Sophia had only existed in his mind.
The audience got a glimpse of Arthurs’s delusions when he and his mother were watching the Murray Franklin Show— the camera immediately zooms into the TV special. We see Arthur in the audience, Murray and the crowd are praising him for taking care of his mother—the camera cuts back. It hits us, this was just his imagination.
Arthur’s relationship with Sophia was similar in the aspect, the was not given any clues that those events were not real. It wasn’t until Arthur had killed his mother and had gone to Sophia’s apartment that it became clear that the two were not romantically involved. When Sophia saw him in the living room, she was petrified. Sophia asked if his name was Arthur. Revealing that she did not know Arthur even though the audience saw the pair together several times. The film takes us back to those scenes in which Sofia and Arthur were together— his standup show, visiting Penny in the hospital. But instead, Arthur was alone.
At this point in the film, it was clear to viewers that Arthur was an unreliable narrator to his own story. What is the reason for this? What if the audience was meant to have questions about what was real and what wasn’t?
Fans of the DC movies and comics are aware that the Joker’s backstory is supposed to remain somewhat of a mystery; in The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger’s Joker never gave a clear answer to how he got his scars. Fans of the movie have theorized that some events in the film were just another tale that Joker recounted about his past. That way, his past always stays dark, and the mystery can continue.
In one of the final scenes of the movie, the Joker is seen looking back at the events that took place. Arthur tells his physicist at the mental hospital that she “Wouldn’t get it,” clarifying that this was all a joke to him. The audience is left with the Joker dancing down the halls of the psych ward, bloody footprints being left behind. This could either be the result of him killing his therapist or hidden message demonstrating his lasting effects in the city of Gotham.