Thursday night I went to see Joaquin Phoenix’s psychological thriller, Joker. I knew it would be a dark film, but I expected a typical comic book character origin story like we’ve seen before (Catwoman, Aquaman, Venom, Deadpool, Wonder Woman). This film proved to be much darker than I anticipated and this was the furthest from a comic book movie than anything else I’ve seen taken from a comic book.
While Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck isn’t the the villainous Clown Prince of Crime we all know and love, he does a beautiful job of showing us the most realistic way that a character like the Joker could come to be.
Joker does not contain the blockbuster action sequences we are accustom to in comic book movies, nor does it have a set hero or villain. The slow and artistic pace of the film coupled by Hildur Guðnadóttir’s eerily beautiful score and Lawrence Sher’s cinematography, is perfect for showing us how someone riddled by multiple mental illnesses reacts to a society that ignores, belittles, and neglects them. It also shows the effects that the empty promises of politicians and public policies have on people with mental illnesses.
As someone who has had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder since childhood, I can totally relate to how he felt when people mistreated him because of his illnesses. It is tough because people don’t understand you or what you’re going through. Due to the chemical imbalances in the brain, there are certain things people with various illnesses simply cannot control. But it is important to note that it is still up to the individual on how they react to the people who abuse them. One can either show forgiveness and move on, or hold resentment and bitterness and act upon those feelings. Obviously the Joker did the latter and terrible things came from his decision.
Although it is never stated in the film, I kept thinking about the quote from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke,
“All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.”
Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is anything but sane, but it shows how anybody could be the Joker. In the background of Fleck’s story is a city at a tipping point both politically and societally. There is constant talk of unrest and protests on the radio and television throughout the film. You get the feeling that it could hit the fan at any moment. And all it took was Arthur having one really bad day for him to unknowingly become the face of the protesters and upset citizens of Gotham. It is undoubtedly drawing from the current political climate in America. The riots and anger in the streets is very reminiscent of the mob protests of domestic terrorist groups like Antifa. But the film does a decent job of not taking political sides.
Phoenix’s realistic and artistic portrayal of the iconic villain is Oscar-worthy and will undoubtedly be remembered in film history. People will try to compare his portrayal to that of the late Heath Ledger’s, but I believe it is unfair to do so. Even though they played the same character, they portrayed vastly different aspects of that character. Ledger portrayed the amoral, chaotic, and mysterious criminal mastermind with no limits to his madness, while Phoenix gives us an in-depth and gritty look into the twisted and tormented soul and mind of a man who would become the Clown Prince of Crime. I don’t believe they are on the same level of comparison.
Actor Josh Brolin beautifully summed up Phoenix’s portrayal and the lessons of the film in an Instagram post:
“To appreciate “Joker” I believe you have to have either gone through something traumatic in your lifetime (and I believe most of us have) or understand somewhere in your psyche what true compassion is (which usually comes from having gone through something traumatic, unfortunately). An example of dangerous compassion would be to, say, make a film made about the fragility of the human psyche, and make it so raw, so brutal, so balletic that by the time you leave the theatre you not only don’t want to hurt anything but you desperately want an answer and a solution to the violence and mental health issues that have spun out of control around us. This film makes you hurt and only in pain do we ever want to change. It’s all in the irony of trauma — a fine line between the resentment of wanting to hurt society back for raping you of a decent life, for not protecting you, and accepting what feels like alien feelings with softening to those others who seem freakish in our era of judgment, and digital damnation.
Like kids in Middle School: man, they can just be mean. For no reason. And, sometimes, those awful little clicky kids breed an evil in someone that rages much later, when everyone pretends we are all back to normal, when we all thought it had just manned up and gone away.
We have a habit of hating and ostracizing and dividing and sweeping our problems under the rug. Joker, is simply lifting the rug and looking underneath it. Nothing more. Nothing less. It’s there.”
There has also been a lot of controversy surrounding the film’s release. Before the film was was even in theaters, certain groups were boycotting it because of the tragic 2012 shooting that took place in the Colorado theater while The Dark Knight Rises was playing. I did this ridiculous. I don’t remember people boycotting Suicide Squad in 2016 which depicted the Joker as a deranged thuggish gangster. In an interview with the lead actor, Joaquin Phoenix, the journalist asked him if he thought the film would inspire people to commit violence. Completely blindsided and flustered by the question, Phoenix walked away from the interview. He stated that he didn’t see why it would.
Well-known evangelist, Franklin Graham took to Facebook saying,
“The Warner Brothers’ new movie Joker glamorizes a mass killer and is so violent that it caused law enforcement to call for extra security in some cities.”
That statement is simply false. Anybody who has actually seen the movie knows that it in no way “glamorizes” the Joker. Nor is this film “so violent”. I was actually surprised that the film wasn’t more violent than it was. It was definitely less violent than most rated R movies are today. In fact, it’s violence was on par with what you would see on prime-time television shows. The violence in this movie looks tame compared to that of The Walking Dead. I feel like the people who make a big issue about the film are just looking for something to make a fuss about. YouTuber, The Quartering, does a fantastic job discussing the absurdity of the complaints people are making about the film.
Another great thing about the film is the choice of music used throughout the film.
Well known songs ranging from “Smile” by Jimmy Durante, “Laughing” by The Guess Who, “Send In The Clowns” and “That’s Life” by Frank Sinatra, to Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2” and Cream’s “White Room” beautifully reflected what Arthur was going through in the film. The scene in which Joker dances to Glitter’s iconic song is definitely one that people will remember for a long time.
Overall, Joker is a beautifully dark film that helps us better understand what could possibly turn someone into something much worse. It encourages us to think twice about how we treat those with mental illnesses.