If Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver was less subtle, it would be Joker–the newest iteration of the infamous comic book villain who has been portrayed many times. While it is technically a comic book film, director Todd Phillips takes great care to differentiate this story from any other superhero/villain movies by taking influence from classic character studies and introducing a grounded and dark atmosphere for the titular character. After the less-than-great depiction of the Joker in 2016’s Suicide Squad, much of the public, including me, was skeptical about yet another iteration of an overused character. The only hopes I had for this movie lied in Joaquin Phoenix as the lead role: he only chooses roles that have complexity and artistic merit, and so far his judgement has been pretty sound. Trusting Phoenix was the right approach to take, because he morphs the same-old Joker into a new character that highlights a disturbing and thrilling movie experience.
Origin stories are typically frowned upon in the comic book world, but Joker feels more like a natural progression of events instead of a fantastical superhero beginning. Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a sign-twirler dressed as a clown who is shut out by everyone around him and has an odd and uncomfortable disposition. He has a mental disorder in which he laughs hysterically no matter the situation he is in, which causes many problems for him when interacting with others. Along with this, he has other issues that plague his mental state and well-being, and once the only stability in his life starts crumbling apart he spirals further into insanity while embracing his darker side.
It is impossible to begin talking about Joker without discussing Joaquin Phoenix, for this is one of the boldest performances of any actor in the past couple of years. Similar to most of Phoenix’s work, he entirely disappears into this role, and Arthur Fleck is all the audience sees when they look into his eyes. This is Phoenix’s movie: he is in every single scene and he is mesmerizing for every single second of screen time he is given. The audience feels great discomfort when Phoenix’s Fleck shows his true colors, but just enough humanity is injected into the character to make this performance more than just a depiction of a deranged psychopath. This is a performance for the ages and the film community will be analyzing Phoenix’s work here for years and years to come, similar to Heath Ledger’s portrayal in The Dark Knight.
While Phoenix could have held up any movie regardless of subject material with his stellar performance, he fortunately has a thoughtful and observant script to work with. Todd Phillips writes this script out of the blue after his previous comedic work (The Hangover, War Dogs), and he more than validates this change of tone by crafting a better drama than most directors could dream of creating. His visual style is unique and complements the setting: a gritty and neon-lit Gotham City where viewers can feel the grimy atmosphere just by witnessing it. The cinematography is fantastic, which is especially evident is scenes such as one where Fleck dances in an empty bathroom in his Joker makeup.
With all of these different components intent on creating an unsettling atmosphere, the movie is truly a tough watch for the average viewer. There isn’t much hope or positivity to be found throughout the progression of this story, and while this is necessary for the social commentary to hit, it causes an uncomfortable experience that not all audience members will be able to tolerate. Joker wants to take a peek at what can happen when society is at its worst–when people treat someone with such utter disrespect and exclusion that they start to spiral into madness and lash back out at society. Watching this happen is difficult, but the discussion that it starts and the morals that the film presents are well worth enduring the darkness.
The intent of this movie is positive despite all of the criticism. Phillips convinces viewers to treat each other with more respect and kindness by showing what happens when the exact opposite of that occurs. However, some scenes and themes seem to contradict this message, making the message appear far more muddled than it should have been. One character in particular is made to be the butt of offensive jokes during every scene he is in, and the movie doesn’t seem aware that these jokes directly contradict its own message. The movie also can ostracize people with mental illness who view it. Fleck, while portrayed with a degree of empathy, is a malicious presence regardless, and this will make those who can relate to his struggles feel vicariously shut out by society. This issue is not one I am sure about, but Joker’s depiction of mental illness doesn’t seem to help any conversations related to it. His mental state is used as a plot device to send a different message and I don’t believe the filmmakers should have sacrificed such a huge topic in exchange for the main point.
Either way, the best thing I can say about Joker is that it will start a serious discussion about all these topics. And no, that discussion is not, “Does this film condone and encourage violent behavior?,” because the answer is a definitive no. The controversy surrounding this movie is most likely either perpetuated by those who haven’t seen it or who didn’t understand the message. That is not to say it isn’t perfectly valid to hate Joker, because there are plenty of arguable reasons to detest it. However, Phillip’s intention was clearly not to perpetuate violence–in fact, I believe his intent was exactly the opposite. The film does unintentionally encourage certain stereotypes, but none of these scenes are flawed enough to hinder the positive conversation that should be had regarding Joker.
Phillips has created a conflicting and interpretive film, and it wouldn’t be anywhere near as memorable or important if it was anything different. It took me several days to write something regarding Joker, and I still am not sure where I stand on certain scenes and issues. But the amount of thought that this film requires of each viewer is a major positive in and of itself. While Scorcese’s Taxi Driver covers the same topic but with a far better vision, that does not mean Phillips hasn’t made a unique and memorable film. Plus, Phoenix’s performance is one that undeniably supersedes any problems the rest of the film could possibly have. Joker is an ambitious film that has much to interpret and whatever one thinks about it, the thoughts one will have after the credits roll make this a film that deserves to be remembered.
I give Joker an A-.