JOKER, the latest film from director Todd Phillips (The Hangover, War Dogs), is an intense character study of Arthur Fleck, the man that would eventually become known as Joker. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix (The Master, Walk the Line), Robert De Niro (Raging Bull, The Godfather: Part II), Zazie Beetz (TV’s Atlanta, Deadpool 2), Frances Conroy (TV’s American Horror Story, Hulu’s Castle Rock), and Brett Cullen (42, Netflix’s Narcos).
To best describe the film, I’ll turn to the official synopsis from Warner Bros.: “Forever alone in a crowd, Arthur Fleck seeks connection. Yet, as he trods the scooted Gotham City streets and rides the graffitied mass transit rails of a hostile town teeming with division and dissatisfaction, Arthur wears two masks. One, he paints on for his day job as a clown. The other he can never remove; it’s the guise he projects in a futile attempt to feel he’s a part of the world around him and not the misunderstood man whose life is repeatedly beaten down. Fatherless, Arthur has a fragile mother, arguably his best friend, who nicknamed him Happy, a moniker that’s fostered in Arthur a smile that hides the heartache beneath. But, when bullied by teens on the streets, taunted by suits on the subway, or simply teased by his fellow clowns at work, this social outlier only becomes even more out of sync with everyone around him.”
I really want to take this opportunity to review this film in a way that I don’t often get too. I understand that there has been a lot of issues with this film ranging from preconceived notions that it glorifies male entitlement and the justification surrounding the behavior of incels, to the realistic nature of the violence. That’s all I’ve been hearing ever since the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival. The social media storm that took hold of the film was so intense that I even found myself, at a point, wondering if I should even see it. However, I fully believe that in order to form an accurate opinion one has to see the movie and not rely on Twitter to form it for them. That said, I had the opportunity to attend a press screening of the film and I’m glad I went because JOKER ended up not only being my favorite film of the year, but a film that I find to be important when it comes to the topic of mental illness and how society, and the government, treat those who are suffering from it. Before I continue with this review I want to make note that just because someone is suffering from mental illness it does not mean they are violent or that it justifies the act of violence in any way shape or form.
The start of the film clues us in that Arthur Fleck, played brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix, is a mentally ill and disturbed individual. Existing in a world that would like to easily forget him, Arthur finds himself at the center of bullying and violence from those around him. Between taking care of his mom Penny (played by Frances Conroy ) and working as a clown, Arthur finds a sliver of happiness through comedy, becoming enamored by talk show host Murray Franklin (played by Robert De Niro). After being jumped during work, a co-worker of Arthur gives him a gun in hopes that it’ll protect him from future harassment. However, after visiting a children’s hospital in which his gun falls out of his pocket, Arthur finds himself fired from the job that used to bring him joy. Shortly after this, his social worker informs him that funding to the department of mental health has been cut, leaving Arthur without any resources for medication or services. He does have one shining light in his life, though, and that’s his relationship with his neighbor, Sophie Dumond (played by Zazie Beetz), who becomes a pivotal source of comfort after his mom has a stroke. However, as each tragedy is piled on top, and Arthur’s psychosis spirals even more, the pent up anger and resentment against a society that has always failed him reaches a boiling point of destruction and chaos. With Oscar-worthy performances, most notably by Joaquin Phoneix, as well as Lawrence Sher’s beautiful cinematography and composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s haunting score, the film packs a wallop of a punch to all senses.
Mental illness is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart. Whereas so many people have been talking about the violence that this film exhibits, not many are talking about the focus of mental health and how it is handled in society. No one should be arguing that Arthur, or any iteration of the Joker character, is a good guy, or agreeing that the actions in which Arthur is able to give retribution are justifiable. That said, the question of what happens when a system fails you, when medical attention is needed and it’s gone, where are people such as Arthur expected to turn to? As the film progresses, we watch as Arthur becomes more and more unhinged, as the lines of fantasy and reality are blurred together, painting a picture of reality that only Arthur can see. How does someone get help for that when help isn’t readily available? It’s a question that I found myself asking throughout the 2-hour duration and one that sat with me long after the credits rolled.
My great Uncle suffered from schizophrenia and was constantly moved around from different state hospitals. Even when he couldn’t care for himself, these institutes would deem him fit enough to be out in society, when that wasn’t the case. My great Uncle found himself homeless, living in subway stations and unable to truly provide for himself. That said, as far as I know, he never resorted to violence, but it painted a picture for me that showed how government institutions constantly failed those suffering from varying degrees of mental illness. Furthermore, I suffer from major depressive disorder and there was a time in my life when I could barely afford rent because I was paying $400/month for medication that I needed, a medication that I now only pay $6 for. I’ve seen how the system of healthcare and pharmaceutical companies work against those who need it the most and it angers me to no end. Does that mean violence should ensue? No, not at all. Attaching violence to those who suffer from extreme mental illness brings about a stereotype that doesn’t often help when showcasing the varying degrees of mental anguish people experience. But again, it made me wonder, how do you help people in extreme scenarios when the system that is made to care for them is taken away?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not championing the actions of Arthur. There is nothing to champion, especially as he becomes more unglued to reality. Chaos and destruction reign supreme and it’s done with devastating consequences. As his persona of Joker becomes more and more a symbol of anarchy against the rich and privileged, the happier Arthur becomes. It’s through his deplorable actions that he’s finally able to feel like he’s being seen, as though he’s not just someone to be disregarded because he’s not part of the upper echelon. This comes into effect towards the end of the film in which we see a shocking culmination of everything that has been leading up to this point. I wrestled with feeling extreme anger, sadness, and disgust at both a fictional society that mirrors the one we are living in today as well as the violence that Arthur gleefully showcases in order to be heard. There have been many comparisons to the ways in which this film, and many other films before it, have paralleled the devastatingly violent actions of those responsible for mass killings. I would never deny that there are similarities, but I fully believe that this is not a film, nor a form of entertainment, that’s glorifying that behavior in any way whatsoever. If anything, I think the film is an example of art that’s pushing the envelope of discomfort in hopes that it will bring about a discussion on topics in society that need to be continuously addressed, instead of constantly ignored, such as poverty, gun violence, and mental illness.
This film isn’t meant to make viewers feel good and there were many times where I found myself feeling extremely uncomfortable, but that doesn’t take away from what I feel is a brilliant character study on the origin of a fictional character that has been showcased throughout pop culture over these last 75 years. It’s easy to say JOKER is problematic, to jump on the bandwagon without ever seeing the film, and to become consumed with the negative hype surrounding it. I mean shit, I was almost there too, but I’m glad I took the time to see the film because it’s allowed me to talk openly about topics such as mental health. All that said, I implore each person to see this film, to come up with your own opinions and to continue the discussion in a way that can bring about a positive change. JOKER arrives on Blu-ray and DVD Tuesday, January 7, 2020.