“The hardest part about having a mental illness is that people expect you to behave as if you don’t have one.”
This quote, spoken by “Joker”’s lead character Arthur Fleck, exquisitely represents the film’s exploration of The Joker as a mentally ill man rather than a violent and bloodthirsty villain. First and foremost, “Joker” is not an ultra-violent comic book movie overflowing with blood and gore and fight sequences. The film has violent scenes, but at its core “Joker” is a complex character study about a man with severe mental illness who spirals into insanity through a series of violent events.
Joaquin Phoenix gives a riveting performance as Arthur Fleck, the failing comedian who feels ostracized from his peers in a dreary and dangerous Gotham. Phoenix shifts effortlessly from laughing to weeping to shrieking and back again as he plunges into the damaged psyche of The Joker.
In other Joker movies, like the ones starring Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger, the villain was more focused on creating a moral dilemma with his victims. That’s not how Phoenix’s character was written, and that’s this film’s greatest flaw. When I think of The Joker, I am so intrigued by how he torments Batman. He isn’t a big, muscular villain who fights The Dark Knight physically, but instead mentally. He challenges his victims by baiting and tricking them, and he’s almost unbeatable in his horrifying, fascinating mind games. A few antagonists make appearances, but they’re never given that compelling mental challenge. This film focuses more on Arthur Fleck’s struggle with mental illness and making a statement about society than The Joker’s battles with his enemies, but some reference to his tormenting style would’ve been nice.
Phillips takes inspiration from director Martin Scorsese throughout this film, especially the films “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” — perhaps too much inspiration, if critics have anything to say about it. And, wow, do critics have a lot to say: the movie has continued to be branded as one of the most divisive movies of all time, even after its release as cinemas around the country ban the film for its seemingly romantic display of violence and insanity. Honestly, the violence in the film is over-hyped. There are only a few violent parts in the movie and it’s absolutely nothing compared to a Quentin Tarantino, Lars Von Trier or even Martin Scorsese film. The film doesn’t do anything more violent or controversial than a dozen other film’s I’ve seen and the expectations created by the media’s constant “Joker” coverage may leave people disappointed or confused.
Director Todd Phillips co-wrote the film and made the choice to leave “Joker” open to interpretation. Viewers are left to draw their own conclusions about the film’s events, which turned out to be a great creative decision to support the themes of mental illness.
The cinematography was also incredible. The dismal color palate set the tone right away and showed Joker like we have never seen him before — powerless, mocked, socially rejected. The film starts with mostly handheld shots, and as Fleck goes deeper into madness, the shots become still. This is a great example of how cinematography can add meaning to a film.
Walking out of the theater, I was not sure about how I felt about this movie. And I am still not completely sure. I do know that I will need to see this movie one or two more times before I can form a solid opinion. With that being said, everyone should see this movie for Phoenix’s transcendent performance along with the film’s message on society today.
Story by Jake Ditto