Joaquin Phoenix stars in “Joker”, an origin story film about the Batman villain’s beginnings in the city of Gotham. Directed by Todd Phillips, the film focuses on Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill man who works as a clown, but dreams of being a stand-up comedian. A film combining excellent direction, a magnificent performance from the cast, compelling themes and beautiful music, this is a movie that holds attention throughout.
There will be spoilers.
On one level this is a story about a mentally ill man who is pushed until he descends into pure psychosis. Arthur has a condition where he bursts into uncontrollable laughter which has no connection to how he feels at the time. It is not named in the film but is a real condition called the pseudobulbar affect, causing sufferers to have extreme emotional displays that are not connected to their feelings. Arthur carries a card, which he gives to people to read if they become annoyed with him while he’s out. Through the course of the film the audience learns that Arthur has delusions and hallucinations, and he himself finds out during the film that his mother, herself mentally ill, allowed him to be abused by men she was in relationships with, to the point of him having a brain injury. Early on, after being beaten up, a colleague gives Arthur a gun for self protection.
The gun becomes, in a sense, a catalyst for empowerment, as well as for a deepening of his injury. It causes him to lose his job, and when he is riding home on the subway in his full clown outfit and makeup, he encounters three obviously well off young men harassing a woman. He tries to defend her and the men turn on him. So Arthur takes out the gun and shoots. I find this scene very interesting on two levels. Firstly, previous depictions of this character in film paint him as a psychopath. Heath Ledger’s depiction in “The Dark Knight” is the most well known example of this. But a psychopath would not have come to the woman’s defence, so Arthur does not seem to have this problem. However, once he uses the gun, things are different. He does not fire blindly and become horrified, as you might expect. No, he kills two men and wounds the third, then proceeds to stalk the third from the train and gun him down in the station. He doesn’t act upset or horrified by this. For much of the movie the audience might question if he even remembers doing it. In this way Arthur is in a sense empowered by his ability to ‘defend’ himself, and at no time acts remorseful.
Arthur will take three more lives during the course of the film, and he seems very comfortable with these actions. He does not kill willfully, however. The witness to one of the murders is allowed to leave as Arthur likes him, and the second murder, done very publicly, is still confined to the man against whom he had a grudge. Arthur takes on the title of ‘Joker’ by the film’s end, though at no time is he fully the criminal of the Batman comics. One assumes that will come.
On a second level, this film has a strong commentary about mental illness. Arthur is supported by a publicly funded system that gives him counseling and arranges his medication. He is told during the movie that the funding has been withdrawn and the program is being scrapped. There is no follow up. Consequently Arthur and people like him are just abandoned, left without support and (crucially) medication to manage their conditions. It is hard not to see this as having an impact on his deterioration. Arthur carries around a notebook, and one of the lines in the book comments that the mentally ill are expected to pretend to be normal. This is, in fact, a very true statement. There is a lot of lip service given to ‘understanding’ and ‘supporting’ the mentally ill, that mental illness is just as valid as physical illness. In real terms, however, those who suffer from these conditions are still shunned, still seen as weird and dangerous, still abandoned. Arthur does not appear to be a bad person at the start of the movie. How much of his dangerous delusions and his actions can be attributed to sudden loss of medication? He is in Arkham Mental Hospital at the end of the movie, so he has been found insane. This means he has not been held responsible for his actions by the state. He kills six people – who is responsible? Is it society?
On another level entirely this film comments on the state of society as a whole, rich versus poor and the ever-increasing divide. Thomas Wayne states that the poor people are ‘clowns’, that he will graciously assist on being better, a very paternalistic attitude. The talk show host Franklin (Robert De Niro) sneers at Arthur’s diatribe and treats him like a loser who blames everyone for his own problems. But Arthur IS a victim of society. His circumstances are not his own fault. So his murder of the three yuppies on the subway is seen by many who are just as frustrated and disenfranchised as a blow against the establishment. His insanity is given a political framework and starts a movement. Arthur/Joker becomes an anti-establishment hero. His amusement at this situation is the most genuine emotion the character shows throughout the film.
Phoenix is riveting to watch in the title role His portrayal of Arthur and the journey of the character is compelling viewing. The scenes where he is suffering from his uncontrollable laughter are tragic, because his face shows anguish and distress. Seeing him work as a clown it is easy to see he’s quite good at it. His humour is there, though his dream of being a stand-up comedian is misplaced. He can dance quite well. He has much to offer, but he is marginalised and shunned. Phoenix portrays these various steps the character goes through brilliantly. His confrontation with Thomas Wayne and with his mother as he learns the truth, his trip to Arkham to find the records that will confirm what he has been told, is gut-wrenching. Phoenix’s Joker measures up against the brilliance of Ledger’s Joker, being just as good, if not better.
The score by Hildur Guonadottir, is a beautifully moody undercurrent to the film throughout. The predominant use of cello, particularly, creates a sombre and unsettling atmosphere. Even when nothing too drastic is happening, that music seems to say, just wait, it’s only going downhill from here. Todd Phillips is not a director with whom I am familiar, but his work in directing this psychological masterpiece is fantastic, and I hope to see more of his work.
This is not a happy film. It is a troublesome film, in that the audience finds itself cheering for Arthur even though it shouldn’t be. It is a slow burn, haunting, frightening and tragic story, and I cannot recommend it enough.