The latest film about the infamous villain takes an extreme approach to discuss issues, like mental illness and socioeconomic disparity.
There are a few things I want to address before I delve into this piece:
- This feature will contain a lot of SPOILERS. I want to truly discuss this movie so it will require talking about the details of the movies that will SPOIL your viewing experience.
- This is considered a standalone film. It’s meant to be an original take on the character. Keep that in mind.
- The Joker is my favorite supervillain/villain in all media. I went into this movie understanding it would be a different presentation of him and did not let any previous incarnations reflect my opinion.
- To reinforce this point, do not go in comparing this Joker to Heath Ledger or any Jokers. This is an origin story, so it provides a different approach to the character, and the qualities you appreciate may not be there because of the character’s timeline.
- A critique a lot of people give in regards to the movie is its Scorsese influence in style and feel. I’m not here to judge it against any Scorsese litmus test. I’m here to watch it in its own context.
- I’m not really a Todd Phillips fan (I enjoyed his first Hangover movie). I also disagree with his opinions on the current state of comedy in modern society. Yet again, I did not let this interfere with my opinion of the movie.
Okay, I know that was a lot. Are you ready? Let’s look at Todd Phillip’s Joker.
We covered Joker in The Workprint’s Movie Talk. Available here, and on iTunes, Google Play, and Spotify.
What is this Movie?
Arthur Fleck, a party clown and aspiring stand-up comedian, lives in poverty with his mother, Penny. He suffers from a mental illness, causing him a multitude of issues, including uncontrollable laughter. Trying to survive in an early 80’s Gotham City, Fleck must deal with the terrors and injustices of society. Everything from his fellow co-workers, to strangers in the city, and even to the apathetic society he lives in. Beaten, neglected, and forgotten, Arthur crumbles more and more until he is finally pushed over the edge. As small acts of vengeance lead to big plans for the ‘Joker’ and the tense environment around him.
But, no, really, What is this Movie?
Joker is a lot of different things depending on the person you ask. For me, the movie is a cautionary tale of poor and disadvantaged people, especially mentally ill people, being ignored by the society they live in.
Imagine the Grimm fairy tales or any type of fairy tale shown in an old Disney movie. There is a polished, clean version that everyone knows, but, when you look at its origins, you find a story that is dark, twisted, and unsettling. The point of these cautionary tales is to give extreme examples and circumstances to let children know that there is a moral lesson to be learned. It can be “Don’t talk to strangers” or “love who you are.” Joker is an extreme cautionary tale that shows a divided city plagued by a large, socioeconomic gap.
In addition to crime and unemployment, its inhabitants are upset with the city’s lack of efficiency. People are hostile towards each other. Everything from a woman yelling at someone for making her baby laugh, to a gang of kids that beat up people for fun. While we watch Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) go through the story, we are given bits and pieces of a Gotham that is like a pressure cooker. The smallest shift or action can cause an explosion.
Everyone in this movie did a great job. There was really no bad performances. The reason I generalize because the obvious focus on this section will be Joaquin Phoenix.
Phoenix’s performance is garnering buzz for Award season, and this is rightfully so. His performance really displayed how fine-tuned his ability is. It’s seen in the subtlety of him during mood shifts or the looks of curiosity or confusion. The laughing condition he did was a spectacle to watch. You can tell in his physicality and voice how the laughing was straining him. The blend of humor and pain in his eyes and face, as if it was ripping him apart. Phoenix truly deserves all the praise in the world. This isn’t the first time he has delivered a great performance, but he truly put his all into the movie.
When it comes to the writing, Joker is a character study following Arthur Fleck. Like most character studies, and expanding to biopics, a clear distinctive narrative may not be ever-present. This movie focuses on the personal goal of Arthur achieving happiness, and though he faces many twists and turns, he finally feels happy in the end. The beauty in the way this is demonstrated to us is that we don’t agree with what he is doing, but we can kind of understand. Arthur Fleck is not like us, he is a severely troubled individual. The scary thing is that we can see bits of ourselves in him.
Another important part of his transformation is how solid this villain is created. Most great villains are able to capture your emotions and make you feel for them until the moment they do something so horrendous, in which point, they lose you. I think the movie does a great job of getting you to invest in Arthur, then makes you sit and watch him kill his own mother. Though you can understand how someone may feel like they want to do that, Fleck is not in the right mind. After that, most of his decisions seem to not be easily defended. For me, Joker has to be seen through the lens of “looking between the rules.”
A weak point for me was the scene with Murray Franklin. Joker discusses the state of comedy and how you can’t say what is funny. This is an actual point many comedians make in this day and age, making sense from Fleck since he wants to be a comedian. It did seem to be the preachiest part of the movie, but it still fits into the character and didn’t distract too much.
Visually, the movie is fun to look at. The cinematography did its job, but the color palette is what really caught my attention. You get a lot of dark rooms, browns, and beige. The city feels like an ugly background, but it provides the perfect compliment for Arthur’s pop. Whether he is in his party clown makeup or in his suit, he sticks out. This works beautifully. The make-up department did a great job designing the Joker’s face, and the overall production of the movie really hit its marks with stride.
The Discussion of Mental Health
One of the biggest selling points of this movie is the case study of mental health that is prevalent throughout the movie. Like I’ve mentioned a few times, Fleck is a severe case, and he is living in a world where mental health is not a serious priority. As a huge supporter of mental health treatment and awareness, it was really important to see the struggles of this man on the big screen. Today’s world is why more accepting when it comes to mental illness, but this is a very recent social pivot. That’s why seeing Fleck being prescribed seven different medications, going through bare minimum therapy, and being disregarded by his peers hit me hard.
Medication is extremely important for certain people and can be lifesavers, but overprescribing can be an issue and possibly seen as a quick fix solution. Therapy is an essential tool, and one I rely on, but if the right motivation is not there both for the therapist and patient, it will be a waste of time. Personally, I am lucky that I am surrounded by a great support system, but it is still hard for me sometimes. Imagine having no one to help you, and the most supportive person is someone that has their own demons. Fleck had the world against him from the start. You find this out more and more, especially when you find out he was a victim of severe abuse as a child.
There is a very important quote from the movie that we see written in his journal: “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” I think this plays a major part in how people absorb and interpret the movie. If you are judging Fleck’s behavior off of how a “normal” person would respond, you are missing the whole point. The movie wants to show the pitfalls about not understanding those around you.
The World of Gotham
The backdrop to this descent into madness, or acceptance if you are Joker, is an 80’s Gotham City. With many similar feels to New York and Newark, we see a portrayal of a city that suffers from negligence and social disparity. The city is dealing with a garbage strike that has intensified. The city is refusing to deal with the mess, and the people are upset with this. We are seeing social programs and institutions losing money, jobs and industries having trouble surviving, and it keeps getting worse. Whenever we are with the people of Gotham, they are shown in tight spots, crowded apartments, or public transportation. The people have no space to breathe. A big polar opposite is one of the characters in the movie, Thomas Wayne, father of Bruce Wayne/Batman and the 1% in Gotham. We always see him in comfort, spacious surroundings, and under control of almost every situation he is in.
This comes to head when, on his way from losing his job, Fleck is harassed by three wealthy-looking, white men. In self-defense, Fleck kills two of them, but then he makes a conscious effort to find and finish off the last one. This scene is considered horrific and makes headlines all over Gotham. Wayne comes out and says its a tragedy, as the three men worked for his company, and calls anyone that disagrees “clowns.” The people of Gotham see the crime as a premeditated attack on the wealthy. Both sides, plus the media, takes this event and twists it to fit their own narrative. The movie doesn’t lighten up the pressure, and it keeps weighing on everyone until protests start to happen, which lead to riots and a Gotham City in chaos.
This is not a perfect movie, and the writing can be a bit cleaner and more concise, but the message of this movie is more important than anything else. Joaquin’s performance is worth the price of admission alone, and the movie does serve as an interesting viewing experience. The note I made above about this being a cautionary tale really feels like the best description. It needs to be understood in that context.
P.S. the movie website is a very simple one. Nothing special.
You can watch ‘Joker’ in theatres right now