*Major spoilers ahead for those who haven’t seen Joker*
To say Todd Phillips‘ JOKER has become an unqualified success is like saying the Clown Prince of Crime digs poison gas. As award season begins to heat up, the film is garnering a ton of attention. Despite some critics labeling the film “dangerous” JOKER has only incited people to dance on stairs in NYC and take their cosplaying to the next level at conventions. The film also won the prestigious Golden Lion award at this year’s Venice Film Festival. Oh yeah, and it’s cleaning up financially, taking in over $1 billion at the global box office.
The gripping character study has been a lightening rod for film criticism as well. While Joaquin Phoenix‘s performance is certainly the topic on most people’s lips, there’s a myriad of other cinematic elements that brook discussion. Lawrence Sher‘s cinematography is mesmerizing and Hildur Guonadottir’s score is among the best of the year. Of further interest is the narrative tale itself. The film is told almost completely from the perspective of Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck/Joker. Some of the events that happen in the movie (such as his relationship with Zazie Beetz‘s Sophie) occur only in Arthur’s mind. When the end of the film finds Arthur in a mental institution, it calls into question whether or not the entire movie was one giant delusion.
For those of you unaware, this notion is called “the unreliable narrator” and it’s a term that’s been used in literary and cinematic contexts for years. Films like AMERICAN PSYCHO, RASHOMON, and BIG FISH have all used this tactic to their advantage. So does JOKER fall into that category? It seems we may now have the answer.
JOKER is set to hit home release in less than two weeks and one of the special items for your viewing pleasure is Joker: Vision & Fury. The twenty-two minute featurette examines the entire JOKER narrative. Phillips confirmed that when the film cuts to Arthur in Arkham Asylum at the end of the movie, he’s been relaying his version of the story from there the entire time. Phillips went on to say that, “There’s many ways to look at the movie. He might not be Joker. This is just a version of a Joker origin. It’s just the version this guy is telling in this room at a mental institution. I don’t know that he’s the most reliable narrator in the world, you know what I’m saying?”
Even though Phillips seemed to give an explanation here, there’s still many ways you can take his words. Just because Arthur is giving his version of the story doesn’t mean the murders of the subway stock market men and Murray Franklin didn’t happen. However, it could also mean that Fleck is just suffering from delusions and none of the events of the film happened. In addition, Phillips’ words also serve to alleviate the concerns of how this version of Joker fits into the larger DCEU. If Phoenix’s Joker isn’t in fact the real Joker, that means his character won’t (or at least doesn’t have to) show up in Matt Reeves‘ Batman films starring Robert Pattinson. This would make sense, since JOKER is set in 1981 and THE BATMAN is presumably set in the 21st century. Yet if Arthur is telling the truth, this opens the possibility of Phoenix’s Joker appearing in future Batman films.
My brain hurts.
In all honesty, I think the unreliable narrator aspect of JOKER is one of the elements that make the film so fascinating and monumental. Regardless of what you think of the film personally, there’s no denying it’s provocative. It’s generated massive amounts of discussion both online and in person. At the end of the day all great cinema should prompt discussion and analysis and that’s exactly what JOKER does. Whether or not we ever see Joaquin Phoenix return as the Clown Prince of Crime is another matter entirely.
JOKER starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, and Douglas Hodge is currently available for digital download and releases on DVD, Blu-Ray, and 4K January 7.