“Joker” is the most recent iteration of Batman’s most iconic villain in Joaquin Phoenix's Arthur Fleck. The film follows Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance as the Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight, and Jared Leto’s attempt at reimagining the character in 2016’s Suicide Squad. “Joker” follows Arthur’s descent into complete madness on his path to becoming the titular character of the Joker. Arthur struggles to survive in a city, and society, that doesn’t care about people like him, mentally ill and poor, denied the tools and services needed to help him. Adjusting to life outside after being institutionalized and trying to make it as a stand-up comedian, Arthur is faced with a harsh world and a system that fails him.
“Joker” is a deeply unsettling film, from the story to the acting and visuals. “Joker” is a visceral experience, one that will likely not sit well with all audience goers. The film is uncomfortable to watch as it depicts the personal and intimate perspective of a psychotic murderer, but equally as engrossing. It’s an extremely timely film in that it’s hard to watch and not be concerned over the people that will align themselves with the Arthur of this film, following the widespread concerns over violence encouraged by the film. A major topic in media in the past few weeks has been the closing of “Joker” screenings, increased security and bans on fake weapons and costumes at theaters as a result of fears that the film promotes a message of terrorism and incel violence through its sympathetic villain. Incel is short for involuntarily celibate and references an online community of men that often harbor resentment towards those sexually active and hold mysoginistic and racist ideologies, with feelings of entitlement to sex.
The residents of Gotham City in the film are bitter over the conditions of their lives and city. They view the Joker as a hero that’s making a political statement about the 1%, which is conceptually an interesting angle to align current tensions between the elite and lower class with the story of a villain. The unrelentingly harsh world of Arthur at times seems cruel just to justify the characters existence with the depicting circumstances that lead to his adopting the Joker moniker, including a savage beating from a gang of kids in the beginning of the film. A bit preposterous at times in its attempt to create this sympathetic villain, the most glaring one seems to be the way in which hundreds of citizens rally behind a man that murdered people because of their resentment towards the elite. Creating a movement in which everyone is protesting and wearing clown masks idolizes a killer as a political leader. But it is consistent in that director Todd Philips builds a world in which all this mayhem would make sense happening. Not a fault with the film, necessarily, but a jarring juxtaposition between our world and that of the film.
The film is an absolute visual delight. Each scene feels dank and wet, covered in grime and glowing with seedy neon lights of the city. One sequence featuring Arthur alone in a public bathroom moments after murdering three people is especially well crafted. The scene, like many in this film, is unsettling but incredibly engrossing. The violence in this film, used sparingly, is jarringly brutal when employed. Scenes brim with the suspense of not completely knowing when he will snap. While the actual acts of violence are no more violent than many films or shows today, the intimacy in the filming and viscerality in the moment is what makes it feel more shocking than similar acts in “Game of Thrones” or “The Walking Dead.”
Phoenix’s portrayal is deeply psychological and incredibly nuanced. The performance makes the viewer’s skin crawl through a sickening physicality that Phoenix brings to the role. Phoenix lost over 50 pounds for the role, which paired with the constant contortions of his body makes the many shirtless sequences add to the disquieting portrayal of a man on the edge of madness. A sequence in which a bruised and shirtless Phoenix stretches his clown shoes hunched over in the locker room, back to the camera and silent other than the pull of leather, feels nauseatingly darker than the reality of the scene. Much of the film is so dark that it feels like a horror film, not an exploration of a popular Batman character, which was likely the intention when exploring the madness of this character. This incarnation is the most psychologically unhinged version of the character in recent memory, truly disturbed and unnerving. Despite how the movie may be received as a whole, it’s hard to imagine Phoenix not receiving awards nominations for his stellar performance.
It’s hard to tell when watching “Joker” what the film wants the audience to feel about Arthur. Is he a monster or a hero to those abandoned by the wealthy and powerful of the city? Perhaps the answer is both. While it’s clear that the people of Gotham praise the Joker for the chaos he’s causing, Arthur is also just a man who became a monster in non-politically charged instances and enjoys the attention as that’s all he’s ever wanted.
The film may be considered dangerous to present Arthur as the hero of the story, even if it doesn’t actually believe he is. Although this in itself may present it’s own commentary on our society, that a character study of a villain can’t thoroughly explore the psyche of a mad man without fear that it may incite violence from others. What does it say about our world, that a film, although brutal and shocking, can’t be made without national coverage about widespread fear of shootings and violence?