A Scathing Critique of Society
Of all the reviews I’ve written, this review is by far the hardest. Whether it be social media, or the evening news, Joker has been the talk of the town for the past few weeks. Unfortunately for the media, they’ve been focused on ALL of the wrong reasons for judging this film, as I’ll elaborate on now. While watching the press screening of this film I couldn’t help but reflect on similar movies that have come before. Whether in Taxi Driver (1976) or Falling down (1993), the goal was never to overtly glorify the films lead, but rather explore their psychosis while witnessing their tragic falls. In the case of Taxi Driver, “Travis” was clearly a sick individual. Due to being socially inept as well as suffering from insomnia and growing paranoia, Travis reached a point where the demons inside of him escaped. Going against his initial plan, he funneled his rage into a cause some could argue was more constructive, while we (the audience) recognized it for what it truly was: an excuse for violence. The element of his character that is often lost within the narrative is that of a survivor. Travis was a 26 year old Vietnam vet suffering with severe PTSD.
With the lack of resources available for returning service men, the conditions were ripe for creating a legion soldiers just like Travis or John Rambo in Rambo: First Blood (1982). A movie again centered on a character channeling his combat stress and unleashing violence on a small Washington town. While many were cheering for John Rambo’s escape from the persecution levied against him (resulting in four subsequent sequels), I was always left to ponder if the audience truly understood the message David Morrell attempted to convey.
Mental illness has often been vilified in films and on television, often in a manner that places the afflicted in a position of being inherently evil, while lightly touching upon the reasons for how they got that way. You need not look any farther than most episodes of Criminal Minds to find rather archaic understandings of schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder, and the previously mentioned PTSD. While most “criminals” perform violent and often heinous acts, the “justice” they receive very seldom comes in the form of help and often culminates in yet more violence. That violence often coming via a 9mm round fired from an officer’s service weapon.
In comic books, it is not so different. Batman has been a staple of DC comics for over 80 years, and has been a personal favorite of mine for more than 30 of those. Through his entire literary run there has been one constant to Batman’s war on crime: Violence. There have been varying degrees of it, but violence all the same. Be it two bit crooks or any member of his rogue’s gallery, Batman has met all of his adversaries with an often unhealthy amount of physical brutality, and yet we cheer for him and empathize with his personal pain; personal pain which is directly tied to mental illness, much like the majority of the villains he fights. No other villains have been more on the receiving end of Batman’s brand of justice than The Joker.
This of course brings us to Todd Phillips 2019 film, “JOKER”, a movie set within an alternate version of the DC cinematic universe we’ve been following since its shaky launch in 2013. If anything can be said about this depiction of the character, it is that he is truly a monster. Although this is made abundantly clear by the ending of the film, one fact should not be lost within the media spectacle which is that he’s a monster of our own creation. There have been many parallels drawn between Joaquin Phoenix’s depiction of “Arthur Fleck” and the many mass shooters that have plagued our country over the years. There has also been an attempt at crafting the narrative that this character will ultimately serve as an inspiration to embolden potential shooters upon this films release. In this reviewers opinion, I sincerely and responsibly disagree and would argue that the James Holmes’ of the world don’t require films like this to justify their actions. It is ultimately irresponsible of us to place such pressure on works of fiction such as this, while ignoring other films that support and condone wanton acts of violence. Where is the line? Would removing “A Catcher in the Rye” and the entire Beatles’ catalog have stopped Mark David Chapman from assassinating John Lennon on December 8, 1980? Most likely not. If anything, I feel as though this film seeks to place the audience into the mind of someone who is truly unwell in order to seek at least some base level of understanding. Although this movie serves as the birth of a literary monster, it equally serves as a testament to man’s inhumanity to man. It could also be argued that JOKER serves as a scathing critique of our mental health system.
“It could also be argued that “JOKER” serves as a scathing critique of our mental health system.”
“Arthur Fleck” (Phoenix) serves as a mirror into the minds of the ill. Whether depression or another diagnoses, 1 in 25 American adults struggle with diagnosed mental illness, which doesn’t even begin to account for those that have not been diagnosed. In the case of Arthur, it is established that he experienced an early childhood trauma and suffers from what I can only assume is a form of schizophrenia along with Tourette’s syndrome, with the presentation of an uncontrollable laugh associated with stress. Living in a crime ridden 1980’s Gotham City during a period of unrest, Arthur makes a living as a clown for hire to support himself and his ailing mother (Frances Conroy). It’s made rather obvious that things aren’t quite right with Arthur from the beginning of the film and abundantly clear upon his first social worker appointment. Remaining somewhat comic accurate, Arthur has aspirations for being a stand-up comedian, largely based on a destiny bestowed upon him by his mother, and watches “The Murray Franklin show” (played by the wonderful Robert De Niro) every night, as a form of inspiration. Arthur is socially detached from everyone around him, and largely lives a life feeling invisible. Along with feeling insignificant, Arthur sustains endless abuse and scorn from those who do acknowledge his existence. After a chance encounter in an elevator with his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz), Arthur begins to envision a world where he has value, which is, unfortunately, the beginning of his downfall.
“1 in 25 American adults struggle with diagnosed mental illness.”
The catalyst that ultimately leads to the metamorphosis of Arthur into our titular character starts at the beginning of the second act of the film. One could argue that the first act is a slow burn, but I personally felt it was necessary in order to immerse the audience into the seedy early 80’s New York, serving as a surrogate for Gotham. It was also necessary to convey to the audience that although Arthur was not well, there remained a brief fleeting moment when he could have been saved with proper support. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your opinion) for us, that moment never comes, as we witness what three murders of the affluent can unleash upon a city already on the brink.
For those worried that the film will ultimately have no direct ties to Batman, or the overarching source, fear not! Although this is a wholly original take on the character, by the final act it becomes clear that WB has a decision to make: either keep this version of the character a completely standalone version, or introduce him again, slightly further down the timeline in another Batman related film. Although I cringed at having to watch one particular scene play out yet again on film, context is everything, and it completely works here. Another beautiful thing about JOKER is the fact that by the close of the film, original depiction it may be, it still aligns with much of what you know (or think you know) about the clown prince of crime. One thing I will say, is that this movie is truly a hard R. It might be best to leave your kids home for this one as JOKER serves as one of the most surreal character studies I’ve seen in quite some time. It may, however, be a little too visceral for those used to the Burton or Nolan iterations. The film does not glorify the actions of JOKER, but it does seek to make you understand. The social commentary regarding the haves and have nots is another story entirely, and definitely is something to discuss on it’s own merits. At the end of the day, JOKER is a thought provoking character study of one of the most recognized villains in the DC universe. You can go into it knowing nothing about the character or knowing his entire history, and still come away with something rewarding. Between its scathing critique of society, the mental health industry, and social services, rests a cautionary tale of what can happen when we allow people to simply fall through the cracks. This film is not an anthem for would be mass shooters, but rather a message: we see you.
- Joaquin Phoenix – Arthur Fleck/Joker
- Robert De Niro – Murray Franklin
- Zazie Beetz – Sophie Dumond
- Marc Maron – Ted Marco
- Brett Cullen – Thomas Wayne
- Frances Conroy – Penny Fleck
- Brian Tyree Henry – Arkham State Hospital Clerk
- Douglas Hodge – Alfred Pennyworth
- Dante Pereira-Olsen – Young Bruce Wayne
- Shea Whigham – Detective Burke
JOKER opens in theaters on October 4.