Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker is a standalone story centring on the iconic DC character of The Joker. Set in Gotham City, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally-troubled comedian who lives with his mum (Frances Conroy). A clown-for-hire by day, Arthur is disregarded and mistreated by the fractured society of Gotham and soon embarks on a downward spiral of revolution and bloody crime, bringing him face-to-face with his alter-ego, “The Joker”.
Joker is a gritty character study that explores the links between mental illness and violence, which has got audiences talking for all kinds of reasons. There’s no escaping the “discourse” that has been in the media around this film since its premiere a few months ago, but it is certainly a film that demands your attention for more than just its controversies, most notably for its overall quality, impressive performances, and well-crafted design and costumes.
Whilst I don’t agree with the views that it is likely to inspire any real-world violence, no more than any other films involving weapons, mentally unstable characters, or acts of anger, it is understandable why some viewers have been left feeling uncomfortable with the film’s standpoint.
And that’s because it’s an origin story of a villain (or at least of a villain who inspired the villain that Batman eventually faced). This has only really been done with characters in the horror genre before, who remain the villain as they are taken on by their innocent victims. But The Joker is different. We aren’t looking for him to be defeated, just to understand the reasons as to why he became a bad guy in the first place.
Showing how a toxic society can create extremist characters, something which I think is very relevant, the film walks a fine line between exploring a character’s mental wellbeing, showing us the more humane characteristics of a superhero villain than what we are used to, and trying to justify their wrongdoings. This is where I thought I would struggle with the film, but whilst you may pity The Joker’s life and find his personal story deeply saddening, the film doesn’t ask you to sympathise with him or attempt to use his upbringing as an excuse for his actions.
The Joker may have reasons for his mental instabilities that have been beyond his control, but it is the choices of society that have let him down the most. He has not only had a traumatic past, but he has also been let down in his present as his society has given up on him, both in regards to support and medical attention but also by treating him as a laughing stock rather than someone in need of help. You might think for a short period of time that it’s no wonder he’s turned out as he has, but you will also still think that his subsequent actions are wrong.
To some extent, these themes are explored reasonably well, but I do also think that they lack a significant depth and overall message. As with all films, character-centred or not, I think it’s more about what you take away from it personally. For me, I feel like it emphasises the need for communities to better help people with mental illness, to recognise pleas for help and to not allow those struggling with their own minds to be left feeling so alone and vulnerable. For these reasons, it is a brilliant character study and one that’s really left an impact on me.
However, although the film deals with some heavy themes, it isn’t particularly disturbing or shocking which is what I was expecting from it. Gotham is a dark and gritty place as it is and Phillips crafts his version of the fictional city superbly. There are also a handful of gory moments that will make you flinch in your seat, but it doesn’t leave you coming away thinking, “Well, that was fucked up.” Instead, it’s dark atmosphere is built up from emotion, constantly pushing feelings of pity and guilt. For me, this lack of a more unnerving or chilling edge is the one thing that the film misses out on. I’m not sure how it could have gone that one step further without off-balancing the rest of the film, but I can’t help but feeling that there’s a bit of something missing.
Some mild spoilers ahead as I discuss my interpretation of the film.
But who’s to say that any of what happened actually happened, anyway? It’s proven that The Joker has a vivid imagination and that some of what we see in the film never actually happened, so why should we believe that any of the second half of the film is as The Joker makes it out to be, either?
This isn’t a particularly new or original theory because it’s one that has been questioned many times already and is also one that’s very possible, but my personal interpretation is that The Joker is actually dead for the second half of the film, having climbed into the fridge and being unable to get out. The film never did show us how he got out of there, and I remember thinking at the time about how this is a common safety issue with household appliances, especially involving children. As soon as he stepped into the fridge, I thought, “He’s not getting out of there easily.” So, maybe he didn’t. It’s not as if anybody would come around to check on him. Instead, the second half of the film could just be The Joker’s own happy ending to himself.
End of mild spoilers.
However you interpret the film, there’s one thing that everybody will agree on and that is Joaquin Phoenix‘s astonishing performance. We already know that Phoenix is a remarkably talented actor, but he’s truly phenomenal in this. The way he handles the transformation of Arthur to The Joker is brilliantly convincing, and he deals with the “unreliable narrator” technique in a really authentic way. It’s undoubtedly an unforgettable performance, and one that I hope is considered in the upcoming Awards ceremonies. It’s about time Phoenix won an Oscar, although he does have some big competition this year, but I think he deserves a nomination, at least.
And let’s not forget about Robert De Niro, either. He’s not had too many memorable roles as of late, but it’s great to see him going back to his roots with a film that has some obvious influences to Martin Scorsese’s work. I love the connections to Scorsese’s 1982 The King of Comedy, as well, in which De Niro plays a passionate yet unsuccessful comic who craves nothing more than to be in the spotlight, but who stalks and kidnaps his idol to achieve his goals. It’s as if De Niro has switched roles here, with Phoenix wanting to take the spotlight from Murray Franklin. Some may think that these links are lazy and unoriginal, but I don’t think there’s any harm in Phillips showing his aspirations.
I’d definitely be up for a series of these villain spin-offs, anyway, to see a host of quality actors exploring the psyches of some of Marvel’s and DC’s most iconic characters who don’t don a cape. I’m not sure that they could all be done as well as this, but I would love to see more of these villains who are so often poorly developed at the forefront of a film’s focus.