“What happens when you cross a mental ill loner and a society that abandons him and treats him like crap? I’ll tell you what you get… you get what you [f***ing] deserve!”
Joker is not the film we deserved, but the movie that we needed.
Films that garner mainstream critical and audience praise are difficult to come by, and it’s rare that a so-called “comic-book movie” is among them. Just take a look at the number of films in this genre nominated for Academy Awards in non-technical categories over the last decade or so.
Yeah, not many.
Something is different about Joker, however. Todd Phillips, director of The Hangover, and lead actor Joaquin Phoenix have elevated this film into the upper echelons of comic-book movie lore. That is nothing against most Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films, by the way; I’ve reviewed multiple of the recent ones and (barring Captain Marvel) enjoy them as much as anybody. But it is undeniable that Joker is a step above them in terms of cinematic quality.
Joker follows Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a mentally ill and struggling party clown who attempts to moonlight as a stand-up comedian. Living in perpetual poverty with his mother, Fleck is often isolated from and ignored by the other residents of a dangerous and unsanitary Gotham City (modeled after early 1980s New York) due to a condition that causes him to randomly burst into spasms of uncontrollable laughter.
Gradually, changing circumstances force Fleck to violently lash out, first at three drunken Wall Street yuppies (in an ironic twist on New Yorker Bernhard Goetz’s “subway vigilantism” in 1981), and later, the few members of his social circle, and finally, his idol, late-night stand-up comedian Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur, once innocent and unfortunate, transforms into the iconic comic-book villain the Joker, as the poor of Gotham rally behind him, sparking massive civil unrest and anarchy that leads to severe consequences for wealthy Gotham mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen).
The brilliance of this film begins in Phoenix's brilliant performance. Twisting, turning and dancing, Phoenix convincingly portrays Arthur’s grapple with his uncontrollable condition and eventual descent into madness. You feel for Fleck; you know what he has experienced, and why he is lashing out, but you are terrified of the gruesome acts he commits. His portrayal of Arthur’s cathartic movement and dancing in the bathroom, and later, on the stairs, serves to be both fascinating yet disturbing in the context of what makes him happy. Phoenix brings his A-game to Joker, and he should unquestionably receive at least a nod for Best Actor at the Academy Awards next February.
Director Phillips should receive a lot of credit as well. The production design of Gotham City - evoking the aesthetic of early 1980s New York, with graffiti-coated subway cars and overflowing trash bags lining the sidewalks - serves as a grounded and believable canvas for Arthur’s character arc to occur. This setting serves in stark contrast to the Wayne Estate, with the latter set in a secluded, tree-lined and peaceful suburb of Gotham - the perfect setting for Fleck to stalk Thomas’ son, Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson). Hildur Ingveldar Guðnadóttir’s score is also brilliant, meshing soundly (pun intended) with Arthur’s transformation into the Joker. Take, for example, the now iconic “staircase scene,” in which Arthur expressively dances to both a dramatic melody composed by Guðnadóttir and Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2.”
The performances of the supporting cast is also commendable. Notable standouts include Zazie Beetz as Sophie, Arthur’s apparent love interest; De Niro, who is solid as always; Cullen, who portrays an elitist Thomas Wayne, somehow serving as an amalgamation of 2016 real-life presidential rivals Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and finally, most surprisingly: Frances Conroy’s Penny Fleck, who provides a disconcerting performance in a critical role.
Joker is a work of art, and high art at that. It is a shame, therefore, that the media portrayed a narrative that Joker would inspire violence on opening night. This film does not praise the violence in depicts, or even display it in a positive light. Rather, Phillips ensures that Fleck’s murders are gory, brutal and cruel, displaying how Arthur’s violence is largely uncalled for. Joker, however, shows us why Arthur Fleck was compelled to commit the atrocities that he did. It is because of the ignorant, unsympathetic and antagonistic attitude of society towards the mentally ill and unfortunate.
Ironically, the response of the mainstream media towards Joker has proven the film’s point, with the media ignorantly suggesting that the movie would spark waves of violence or civil unrest - when the only ones responsible for any violence that could have occurred being the media themselves, for portraying the incorrect narrative that the lonely or the mentally ill would be inspired to lash out at society.
The inspiration that one should take from this film is to be more sympathetic, kind and understanding towards those befallen by mental illness and ignored by our larger society. Too many lives have been lost because of our collective ignorance to those left behind. Debates on the political action required to sufficiently address the root causes of poverty, gun violence and social isolation (themes in Joker) are important, yes; but so much more can be done, in this cruel age of social media, if people were simply nicer to each other.
Joker is a culture shock for the masses. It is intrinsically produced to make us uncomfortable whilst revealing the hard truths of our society. As with many movies, it will likely take time for most people to begin to understand the artistic and thematic value of this film. Until then, however, we must collectively offer more compassion to the “Arthur Flecks” of our world.
Photo Credits: DC Films