Just a warning- I tried to avoid big spoilers but some might have slipped through the cracks. If you’ve yet to watch the film, AVOID THIS!
With the exception of a short trailer I watched a few months prior to the cinematic release, I avoided promotional material for Joker. I didn’t research anything, I tried my hardest to scroll past reviews on social media (this was difficult given that so many friends had gone to see it), I tried to keep my nose out of any professional critiques and genuinely had no interest in crowning a ‘favourite’ joker. This is primarily because I’m not sure Joker is eligible for any sort of decent comparative critique, with it being a stylistic and narrative departure from previous iterations. Perhaps one can choose a ‘favourite’, an interpretation that they identify more with, however I feel like that’s a completely subjective decision and I’m more interested in unpicking Joker as a standalone film in its own right. So that’s what I’m going to do.
Firstly, it’s important to just state for the record: I loved it.
I loved Joaquin Phoenix’s guttural performance and brutal physical transformation. I loved the cinematography and the way the colour palette seemed to evolve as the protagonist did. I loved the bleakness of the movie’s tone. I loved the themes and the way they were embedded. For me, it simply worked. I understand that others are more cynical but hey ho, everyone feels differently about these precious iconographic characters.
Todd Phillips’ Joker fleshes out the roots of the Joker and it’s a welcome change as there’s no comical or grandiose façade at the beginning of his story. We are introduced to Arthur Fleck, a man who lives an unextraordinary and mundane existence. As the primary carer for his sickly mother and self-professed ‘man of the house’ since boyhood, Fleck is a vulnerable adult who takes on low-paying gigs as a clown and attends regular therapy. At these sessions, he answers the same repetitive and insincere questions before picking up a prescription for a medication cocktail, which is supposed to help mediate a variety of mental illnesses. He’s an oddball grappling the pseudobulbar effect and this is perhaps the most touching characteristic of all. We’re all familiar with the maniacal cackle of the Joker yet Phoenix’s portrayal complicates this. The pseudobulbar effect distinguishes Fleck from his peers- arguably a result of brain damage, this trait forces Fleck to succumb to uncontrollable laughter fits at inappropriate times. He conceals his mouth and tries to apologise, as he is unable to stifle himself yet it’s already too late. We see him cradle himself on the bus, laughter turning to crying as onlookers try to avert their eyes.
Fleck so desperately wants to be like everybody else yet finds himself sticking out like a sore thumb, exhausted by the constant pretence. His only outlet is smiling. He performs happiness yet the reality is that Arthur Fleck is a very troubled, very lonely individual who is heavily sedated every day in order to make the lives of his peers easier. Fleck is chronically depressed and finds every joke to be at his expense with work colleagues and teenage kids regularly reminding him of his worthlessness. Fleck is far from powerful. He’s the guy who goes unseen and unheard, drifting into peripheral vision until somebody wants to stand beside him to make themselves seem taller.
Phoenix’s portrayal humanises the antagonist, drawing sympathy from viewers and at times blurring the distinction between victim and predator. We see Fleck as a working-class man who is hard done by- he’s relatable and jaded yet loveable, harbouring all the right intentions yet persistently misunderstood. Phillips offers a frightening reflection of modern-day society, presenting an unfeeling collective who would benefit from paying attention to the needs of those who are socioeconomically struggling. During the movie, there are numerous events which critique the prevalent stigmatisation of mental illness and the difficulties faced by those who are mentally ill when attempting to access fundamental support or push for change. Fleck scribbles into his journal that, ‘the worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.’ Indeed, a dominant theme in the movie is conformity and performance. Fleck literally does smile though his heart is breaking, every damned day. He puts up with a lot. He sees imperative mental health services cut, hypocritical leaders pledging to offer their support to the vulnerable (yet avoiding all contact with this demographic) and working class individuals being out of pocket for reasons beyond their control (e.g being attacked mercilessly by several people and having to pay for the advert signage that was damaged).
Of course there’s a limit to how much a person can tolerate, particularly if that person is already struggling to keep themselves afloat.
That’s where Fleck snaps and the Joker emerges.
By the end of the movie, it’s your call. You can ostracise Fleck for losing control and for becoming the ringleader of chaos amongst the masses or you can almost support his cause, understanding the weightlessness he feels following a cathartic liberation. I understand why audiences are unnerved by Phoenix’s performance and the film’s themes. There are many people smiling though their hearts are aching, they’re the doormats we stomp on every day. It’s scary to imagine a world where the roles are reversed.