Image courtesy of newyorker.com
By Leonard Blanc
Directed and co-written by Todd Philips, ‘Joker’ (2019) is a Drama/Thriller origin film about the classic DC comic supervillain. Starring Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a damaged, mentally-unwell man working at a company that supplies circus style clowns for children’s parties, to support himself and his seemingly invalid mother, Penny.
Set in 1981, the film takes place in Gotham city, a dark crime infested den of poverty and depravity where the weak and helpless are doomed to remain just that, and the rich and powerful look down on them with contempt. One of these weak, helpless people is Fleck. After a lifetime of submitting to the abusive figures in his world, Fleck snaps and begins a slow, homicidal decent into insanity, unknowingly taking half the city with him.
Phoenix’s Oscar worthy performance is the most captivating, unsettling part of the film. The way he contorts his emaciated, sometimes exposed frame, around on screen and cries out in pained laughter is frightening to witness.
Many of ‘Jokers’ themes are laid out for audiences to explore. One of them being mental health. Fleck isn’t just a flat comic book character who goes around murdering people because he’s inexplicably crazy, or some other gross oversimplification.
He is fully aware of his mental illness and takes every measure possible to try and get better. Despite this, his efforts are wholly in vein, to the dismay of viewers.
This struggle to take control of one’s own mental wellbeing while experiencing a decline in resources and stranded in poverty, in a world that doesn’t seem worth the effort, is a common problem among the callous citizens of Gotham, and those of us in the real world.
Philips explores themes of classism in the film. There is a clear division between the poorest of the poor, like Fleck, and the ultra-rich represented by Thomas Wayne, a businessman and up and coming political candidate.
While Fleck is meant to represent a person of common experiences, Wayne’s character is not unlike any number of rich and powerful politicians that publicly and privately look down on the people they’re meant to be representing.
‘Joker’ is at times hard to watch. The film depicts realistic bouts of deranged, disturbing behavior that for some will hit painfully close to home, while leaving all viewers in a constant state of unease for the film’s entire two-hour runtime.
But that’s okay, because that’s exactly what Philips was trying to accomplish. ‘Joker’ is not a comic book film where the protagonist saves the day, and everything is neatly wrapped up in the denouement. ‘Joker’ is the retelling of a character we’ve seen a thousand times, now with more depth and meaning to his psychotic behavior than ever before.