"Joker" is a ferocious, nihilistic journey of finding inner peace
We all love an underdog, but do you know what audiences love even more? Fragile-minded heroes who are one bad day away from complete and utter collapse.
Trauma is one of the most overly romanticized themes in all creative outlets. Literature, video games, and yes, of course, cinema. Why? Because everyone, at least to some small degree, has experienced distress. Physical, mental – in today’s climate, even those who were once the bravest of us all are now finding it harder to go a full day without feeling a bout of anxiety. We’re living in a bad news decade – a time where hypothetical threats exist around every corner. And because grief is universal, seldom do you find a story with a unique take on eggshell-brittle narrators. “Joker,” fortunately, is one of these rarities.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as the Clown Prince of Crime in the character's first-ever standalone film. Strip away Batman, Alfred, Harley, and what do you get? Something far more human than you ever thought possible, especially from a superhero franchise. Replace the capes with clown shoes and makeup; delete the superpowers and fill in the blank space with guns and knives; take away every ounce of glam and vibrant color and give it a fresh coat of grit, blood, and pain. This is Todd Phillips’s “Joker,” a dark crime thriller that doesn't wish to entertain you – instead, it will bombard you with such a heavy dose of nihilism, sadness, and foreboding tension that it will feel more like a hard kick to the face, over and over again.
Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a mentally-unstable comedian who is living in a dirty, corrupt, chaotic Gotham City. The streets are filled with trash, classism is alive and well, crime is rampant, and the looming gothic buildings and structures put us in a cage made up of perpetual unrest. Fleck lives with his aging mother in a decrepit apartment, where he pushes all of his own problems to the wayside in order to care for her. He visits a therapist weekly, takes a handful of psychiatric medication, and any free time he has left is dedicated to his self-loathing, stalking behaviors, and keeping his deeply rooted rage at bay.
The film is first and foremost a study of how a troubled man will do whatever he can to smile in the face of pure heartache. He battles with feelings of abandonment, isolation, public ridicule, and physical and emotional abuse. Yes, “Joker” is a humorless film, which is quite ironic seeing as how the main character is an aspiring comedian.
While at first glance this steady stream of pain may seem tiring and relentless, the narrative supports Fleck’s turmoil. This is mostly thanks to Phoenix’s sharp and wildly unpredictable performance, which sways back and forth between calm and complacent, and violently explosive. Having lost nearly fifty pounds for the role, the actor looks sickly, as though his torment has eaten away at him. His laughing fits, which physically hurt him, add to this, as they cause more embarrassment for the character than actual joy. It is by far one of the most emotionally devastating performances I have ever seen on the silver screen.
As the movie progresses, he loses every atom of his humanity at the hands of those around him. The Waynes, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), his neighbors, and even seemingly irrelevant city folk -- all are to blame. Eventually, when he has nothing left to lose, and the torture reaches a breaking point, he stops pretending and embraces his natural form. In other words, he finds his own form of tranquility by making those around him suffer on his behalf.
On a filmmaking standpoint, almost every aspect of “Joker” is emotionally taxing, allowing it to cut deep and resonate with many different demographics. The camera lingers on Phoenix, especially as his mind completely unhinges, and it begins to feel as though we’re being forced to watch this man suffer; that we are part of the problem in society. This is beautifully combined with Hildur Guðnadóttir's score, which is so chasmic and haunting it nearly shook every bone in my body. It allows you to feel his agony, to embrace his pain. And when you add the score to his sharp screams and blood-curdling laugh, you'll eventually find yourself rooting for this ticking time-bomb to go boom.
This is where “Joker” starts to fold in on itself. The film doesn’t paint Fleck in a very villainous manner until later on in the story, after our empathy for him is concrete and deep. Because of this, some may find his violent actions understandable, which in today’s climate could very well be considered dangerous, and frankly, irresponsible. Phillips is attempting to study this, but the problem arises when you teeter on the edge of sympathizing with Fleck’s thought process, and fearing it. The fact of the matter is, many viewers (myself included) will use their own history of trauma as a way to relate with the broken man, and will subconsciously root for his ascension from darkness.
No, I am not saying audiences will eagerly anticipate Fleck's murderous tendencies. What I am saying is that because grief and suffering is so universal these days, you can’t help but wonder how raw and forgotten this man must feel. This is where “Joker” can blur the line between fictitious cinematic entertainment, and forging a narrow, troublesome path to sympathizing with violence at the hands of mentally unstable persons. Phillips attempts to mask this by painting mental illness in such a brutish, black, and sullen manner, but in some ways only makes Fleck that much more desperate for our empathy. Are we supposed to root for our protagonist, or pray that he be stopped? I can’t answer that question, and that’s what makes the overall appeal and power of “Joker” somewhat murky.
With that said, the film itself has broken down dozens of barriers when it comes to accurately depicting untreated mental trauma. Fleck’s past, present, and future are made up of multiple-choice answers, allowing for some moments to feel fantastical and wonderfully serene in such a brutal world. In these moments, characters come off as whimsical and comforting, further enhancing the film’s view of instability, as well as its unreliability when it comes to narration. There is no right or wrong way of viewing “Joker” – it is a fractured, twisted, and brutally heartbreaking story of one man’s journey to find peace, but how we arrive at that destination is up to our own imaginations. And as we learn quite early on, tranquility is a very subjective term.
- Final Thoughts -
“Joker” is a carefully constructed study of one man’s descent into complete and utter madness, and how the human brain works to find peace in times of relentless turmoil. The film’s slogan, “Put on a happy face,” remarkably captures the essence of trauma. It questions what it means to be broken, and how tiring it is to be asked to smile when all one wants to do is breakdown, cry, and beg for help. However, its fragmented narrative connects mental illness with violence in a way that some will find dangerously sympathetic, and it should be watched as a cautionary tale, not as a voice for those who seek to harm others.
("Joker" image courtesy of The New Yorker)