Todd Phillips brings us another movie about a character whose iconicity is taking on cosmic levels. JOKER is about the most influential villain in the Batman universe and he has had a lot of iterations. But why is it different this time? You may have encountered words like “shocking” or “dangerous” surrounding this movie, however, only to generate click bait in my opinion. So who is Arthur Fleck and why is his story so provocative?
The origin story of the Joker has had many interpetations but some key elements remain the same: he is the king of chaos, he loves a good laugh and he seems to have lost his mind. This movie takes us on a slow descent into madness and tries to imagine how one gets labelled as crazy and what that even means. What kind of man would it take to become one of the most feared – but also beloved – villains of all time?
Joaquin Phoenix (Arthur Fleck) is simply mesmerizing in this role. His ability to convey all the complex structures in his character but also the effects of the world around him is hypnotizing. Arthur is introduced as a guy who tries really hard to fit in and be normal but fails on every level. In his everday life, he experiences one setback after the other and as we get to know him better, his unsettling nature becomes more and more apparent. One of the most important themes in this story is the turning point from tragedy to comedy that is Arthur’s life. For the longest time he is holding on to his trauma and tragedy until he realizes if he just lets go, it can turn into a comedy.
All of us wish for a balanced life but what if everything around you seems to have conspired to drag you down. Joker is a 2-hour journey of spiraling down into self-destruction. For the first half of the movie, his internal breach and final transformation into the Joker hovers over the audience, ominously pressing down. It is quite the unsettling and constricting feeling but that is also what creates the tension and excitement. You can see Arthur struggling to get on top of things, forcing himself up literal and metaphorical stairs every day. And when he finally snaps, he glides down those steps, embracing his descent because it means he is liberated at last.
I dare say most of you can relate to the unburdening experience of giving yourself a break from constant self-control. If we put this in the context of depressing thoughts, all of us have heard “it is good to get it out of your system”. In Arthur’s case, he completely allows himself to fall into the abyss to a point of no return. Nevertheless, you sympathize with this person who has experienced so much pain, you almost feel happy about this tiny triumph. He appears before you as a delicate butterfly escaping his cocoon and then you remember all the terrible things he has done and feel conflicted. But that is the thing with the Joker. Why do we love/hate him so much?
Self-righteousness, feeling entitled to demand justice, the yearn for change – I am guilty of all these feelings. The Joker is a vent for our own dissatisfaction and the desire to overthrow the system but self-regulation is one of the building blocks of a “functional” civilization. That is the reason why he gets people to put on clown masks and riot in the streets without necessarily planning to do so. He spreads chaos wherever he goes and for people who feel like their mysery is being exploited and no one’s on their side, chaos is the best bet to reaching a better life.
One thing that really stands out for me is the music in this film. It was composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir prior to shooting and Phillips chose to play it on set to let it bleed into the performances and general atmosphere. To me, it felt like a literal blanket covering me, like a sonification of apathy and it really impacted the way I identified with Arthur. Moreover, the entire movie is carefully orchestrated to be as realistically set in its time as possible and it shows in small details but also highly prominent stylistic choices like camera movement.
So why might it be considered brave to make this movie? One possible reason is the philosophical concept of desert which basically is the concept of “you should get what you deserve”. That is essentially Joker’s campaign slogan. He adds fuel (and maybe some guns or the occasional squirt flower) to the fire of entitlement which is one of humankind’s biggest issues. But although it is highly reflective of reality, it is very much an individual story in a fictional universe.
Controversial topics are under no obligation to please you – not even in movies. It is meant to be unsettling, how little or how much you want to empathize is your own choice. In my opinion, nothing in this movie is shocking due to its surprising nature but because it is often pure abuse and terror of a kind which can be found anywhere in the real world. And yet, movies that depict violence are not the cause of violent crimes in reality, period. Nevertheless, Joker will punch you in the gut, that is for sure.
In the end, Joker can inspire a lot of different opinions about a lot of different things, the words above only summarize my own musings. What I’m trying to achieve with this review is an interesting think piece and a sharing of perspectives. As always, we would love to here your thoughts! Personally, I think it is one of the best origin stories I have ever seen. Joaquin Phoenix has blown me away and I can’t wait to see it again.