Starring Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role, Joker, which was released in cinemas last week, takes a look at how the popular DC comic character becomes the villain; an origin story of sorts that takes place in Gotham long before the rise of Batman. This isn’t the glorified (and poorly portrayed) madness of Jared Leto’s Joker, nor the insane and yet somehow charming Joker portrayed by Heath Ledger. This is Phoenix like we have never seen him, in a grim look at the true darkness of mental illness, and the effects of poverty and ignorance on the city’s most underprivileged residents .
I’m honestly still not sure how I feel about the film. I think part of this comes down to the direction. Joker was directed by Todd Phillips, who is responsible for movies such as Road Trip, The Hangover trilogy and Due Date. As such, I felt he was put of his depth here, with a film that is not only considerably darker than his previous films, but also a completely different genre. Despite the title, this is no comedy. Whilst there were admittedly some funny moments, it was a kind of bleak humour, and far removed from any of the director’s previous works. The film as a whole is more of a psychological thriller, and I feel like this film would have benefitted from someone more used to this dark, gritty style of direction. Perhaps Fincher, or even Christopher Nolan (who, as we all know, directed the Dark Knight franchise, with much success.)
Director aside, Joaquin Phoenix does the best he can with what he’s got to work with, and to his credit, gives quite a brilliant and impressive performance. His portrayal of Arthur Fleck is truly something to see, and makes for somewhat uncomfortable viewing. He is a clown for hire with aspirations to become a comedian, who looks after his ailing mother (Played brilliantly by Frances Conroy), and he does the best he can despite the hand he’s been dealt. But this film is not your typical underdog story. It is a visceral and compelling look at the effects of ignorance and insensitivity, and paints a picture of a society that could quite conceivably drive a person over the edge. The main character is mentally unstable and in some ways quite childlike, and as the film progresses, the scales of feeling are evenly weighted between sympathy and revulsion. His slow descent further into madness, as he evolves into the villain he will inevitably become, is actually quite confronting to watch. In addition to this, Arthur’s penchant for bursting into uncontrollable, unsettling laughter – which happens consistently throughout the film – made me vaguely uneasy. His unkempt hair and sickly physique were in keeping with the overall grimy feel of the film, but it’s not until his emergence as the Joker, that he finally looks like he belongs. The costume and facepaint he wears as his Joker persona suddenly reflect the madness he’s had within him the whole time, and once he makes his new identity known, there’s no coming back from it.
There are no rose coloured gasses here. The world Arthur lives in is one of systemic oppression, and the significant gap between the rich and the poor. These are desperate people; underprivileged and angry at the system that is determined to keep them down. Whatever the spark that ignites the fire, revolution is inevitable. In some ways, Joker was a difficult movie to watch, because there was a heavy focus on how mental illness is perceived by society, and the tendency of people to make it into a joke, either out of cruelty, or simple lack of understanding. In the journal he carries with him – a physical manifestation of his innermost thoughts – Arthur writes “The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t“. It is a painfully accurate statement, and one that brings with it a floodgate of emotions. And yet, despite revelations that come to light regarding the origins of his psychological issues, it is hard to feel full sympathy for Arthur. He is a character ruled by delusions and guided by his absolute certainty that he is somehow special. It is a difficult protagonist to empathise with.
It did have some really great moments, and was thought provoking in a lot of ways. Amongst others, the movie touches on things like mob mentality, influence of the media, and how easily things can turn from love to hate or vice versa. There was some unexpected violence, which was utilised to great effect and surprisingly not overdone. That being said, there was a lot about the movie that didn’t quite work. There is one relationship in particular that just feels wrong and even though it is later explained, it left a bitter taste in my mouth. Whilst Joker managed to tackle some pretty big themes and really captured the darkness of a city on the brink of chaos, for me, this movie felt like a long lead up to a not especially satisfactory conclusion.