‘Joker’ offers disturbing look into character’s torment
“The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don't.”
Love it or hate it. Middle ground is non-existent in this anguished, disquieting exposé into the tribulation of DC Comic’s most iconic villain.
1981 opens to a dingy, rat-infested Gotham where Arthur Fleck is pulling his lips up into a smile as a single tear stains cheap, white, face paint. His mom always told him to be happy. That led to life as a clown-for-hire spreading threadbare joy. A disorder brought on by a traumatic brain injury – Pseudobulbar Affect – propels him to laugh while crying through painful moments at unseemly times. Shrouded in creepy social incongruencies, no one understands his good intentions. No one gives a damn.
Arthur awkwardly keeps smiling through the pain and lumberingly mimics social norms like postures and greetings. He visits with his social worker every week to talk about his journal and get seven medications. She doesn’t see the real him. She doesn’t give a damn. Gotham-wide budget cuts lead to the closure of his social services program and termination of his meds. Arthur keeps smiling. Childhood revelations slowly tear the fabric of his measly reality. Arthur keeps smiling. He pursues a dream to become a stand-up comedian but when his favorite late-night talk show host roasts his performance, Arthur finally...genuinely smiles. Someone is going to give a damn.
Joaquin Phoenix as ‘Joker’
This supersedes performance. This is virtuosity. This is Oscar-imminent. Phoenix researched the behavioral health disorders that were applicable to the Joker’s diagnoses and offers a portrayal that pulls the audience into the humiliation of his daily routine and the anguish of trying to matter to people who don’t give a damn about him. He makes others laugh only to watch his resolve dismantled with harsh words or a snippy attitude.
The only reprieve is in scenes where Arthur is liberated from agony and dances, marches, flows. It is like watching a tranquil Mick Jagger flit and flutter across the stage. Losing 52-pounds for the role, Phoenix’s ribs and joints undulate in ways that are too distressing for the naked eye.
When the film concluded many viewers complained about the plot and portrayal: “It felt like I was watching a documentary on mental illness and schizophrenia. It was horrible. So disappointing. I knew it would suck.”
The portrayal and gentle pace of mental entanglings is so provoking that it distances the audience from the predictable structure of comic-based films and the gluttony of action and whizzing activity. There is no explanation for the Joker’s emaciated frame and there is no connection with prior or future Multiverses. In this rendition, the trauma wasn’t earned from a vat of chemicals or at the hands of the merciless Black Knight. The portrayal and backdrop are so unfamiliar that it alienates viewers from falling in love with a new beginning.
Like Arthur’s LSD-baked movements, the camera work is lithe, nimble, agile and sweeps over the vintage-scapes with dexterity that brings hand-drawn comic-book angles to life. There was no need for CGI in this raw tale. The cinematography captures every detail of Arthur’s tragic emotionalism and day-to-day bravery to survive.
The poetic irony is this disconsolate tale is brought by the director, writer and cinematographer for high-grossing comedies, “The Hangover” and “Due Date.” They have espoused this as a standalone film that does not fit within the Multiverse but is their Ode to Telling Off People Who Are Easily Offended by Comic Irreverence. Like many directors, it’s a political statement against whatever disgruntles them. It is an exhilarating perspective on the Joker’s evolution: The origins of his mental torment are organic and sinister; something that reveals how The System continually failed him.
The pacing is slow and insidious. Every scene is intentional. Nothing is wasted or ill-paced.
The system failures that led to the Joker’s mental illness are loosely attributed to Thomas Wayne, father of Bruce Wayne AKA Batman. Comic fans may not be convinced by this correlation and certainly won’t be convinced of the 20-year age difference between Joker and Batman.
The slow pace may prove dull and mind-numbing as it is unaccompanied by action, fight-scenes or any typical Comicverse conventions. The film has been met with controversy. You can read about the opposition from the families of the 2012 theatre shooting in Aurora, Colorado here: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/aurora-shooting-victims-voice-concerns-joker-emotional-letter-warner-bros-1241599
Followed by the Director’s response: https://metro.co.uk/2019/10/03/joker-director-todd-phillips-defends-film-complicated-violence-baclash-isnt-good-thing-10852361/
Finally, you can read a thoughtful reaction by Josh Brolin (who voices Thanos in "Avengers: Infinity War" here: https://www.instagram.com/p/B3PXR6gADbe/?utm_source=ig_embed&utm_campaign=dlfix
Fans Who Wanted (or didn’t know they wanted) a Radical Change in the Comicverse: 5 out of 5 Jokers
“For my whole life, I didn't know if I even really existed. But I do, and people are starting to notice.” - Arthur
Fans of Fast-Paced Action = 0 out of 5 Rats
“Violence in the movie was always meant to be a slow burn” -The Director
Fans of Tried and True Comicverse Plots = 0 out of 5 Bats
“He was crazy but he wasn’t Gotham crazy.” – A Fan