“Joker” is a dark, nihilistic look into the reality that many individuals suffering from severe mental illness face. With cinematic homage to Martin Scorsese, director Todd Phillips’ world-building, coupled with Joaquin Phoenix’s performance of a lifetime, succeeds in creating a complex character amidst a brutalistic backdrop, leaving audiences in a bewildered state of intrigue, awe, disgust, and terror.
The plot centers around tormented Arthur Fleck, a man suffering from an unnamed mental illness, a symptom of which is uncontrollable, chronic laughter. We then witness his slow, tedious descent into the role of the titular “Joker.”
Phillips stylistically includes elements reminiscent of Scorsese’s films, namely “Taxi Driver,” replicating its score and violence. The shadow of Scorsese’s influence is noticeable even if it’s not relevant to one’s opinion of the film.
The cinematography and score are the film’s most effective devices in conveying the instability of its main character. With shots that hold on a scene, movement, or expression paired with a sinister score, the audience is pulled into the moment with Arthur, forcing them to confront the severity of his state.
There is a tangible sense of dread and tension built by these elongated shots, producing an uneasy atmosphere in an already dark environment. “Gotham” also provides a dark and dreary environment for the many insufferable, dangerous characters residing in it.
Joaquin Phoenix is perhaps, indisputably, the most salient aspect of the film. To watch this film is to watch an abused, troubled individual fall into an extreme state of disassociation and insanity — the entire time, begging him not to descend further, only to remain powerless in preventing his ultimately inevitable mental decline.
This creates an extremely troubling and uncomfortable sensation for the viewer, making the film’s events physically difficult to watch, accept, or digest. Phoenix gives an utterly compelling performance, and the aforementioned effects would be impossible to achieve without his dimensional talent.
“Joker’s” critical response was largely unexpected, with countless critics calling it overly cynical and only earning a 69% on Rotten Tomatoes. However, perhaps the “cynical” characterization is misguided; in a social climate which seeks to advocate for mental health awareness, the discussion does not often extend to those suffering from more severe, trauma-induced illnesses.
We converse on more common, more invisible conditions including depression and anxiety, but there remains a revulsion or ignorance to mental illness which pervades one’s behavior noticeably. For those individuals such atrocious abuse and harassment can easily be a reality. To call it unfavorably bleak misses the point entirely.
It is impossible to discuss this film without addressing the controversy surrounding it. Following the film’s premier, concerns arose regarding the film’s potential to inspire persons with similar backgrounds and inclinations towards violence. Several theaters went so far as to hire security guards on opening night. Given the severity and scale of crimes committed within the last few years, these concerns are certainly reasonable.
Yet, upon viewing the film, the violence is hardly romanticized — in fact, it pushes back in the opposite direction. The audience does not want the character Arthur to act so viciously.
As a result of Phoenix’s compelling performance viewers can sympathize with him in a sense, but they in no way actively encourage or condone his actions. In fact, the film seems to show us how we ought to help those suffering; how we ought to treat each other if we want to avoid such a fate.