The idea is a little weird – trying to put a backstory with the Joker. Heath Ledger’s iconic interpretation without an origin inspired feelings that some evil is just natural to the world. Now, however, Joaquin Phoenix offers a question and a challenge. Is the Joker something that society can create? Director Todd Phillips’s vision por- trays “Joker” in a shockingly realistic and believable way. Simply put, it is a fantastic film, and it could stand alone as a study of character and society for viewers without any comic-book or superhero knowledge.
Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar-worthy performance is what makes this movie work more than anything. Arthur Fleck is affected by a condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably but, even then, he is miserable. Phoenix masterfully displays his character’s inner torment. His posture is contorted. His movements are sporadic, teeth are crooked, even laughing is a painful chore.
Early in the film, Arthur writes in his diary, “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” The beginning of the film portrays Arthur as a failing stand-up comedian. He is even beaten up twice in the first half hour of the film. Society expects him to be normal, and Arthur does not see how. Thus, he is tormented with how to be happy. He even states, “You don’t listen, do you? You just ask the same questions every week … ‘Are you having any negative thoughts?’ All I have are negative thoughts.” His relief is a revelation. He finally realizes that the only way to be happy is to let go and embrace inner insanity.
To paraphrase a famous Batman quote: Arthur learns that it is fun to dance with the devil when he is already inside of you. Arthur pronounces his life a comedy and, with a showman’s panache, dances down a flight of stairs symbolizing newly accepted crimes.
In the film, society is an awful place. The rich trod upon the poor. Garbage lines the streets, and work is hard to find. The city is a piece of kindling waiting for a match to ignite chaos, riots and revenge. After no longer trying to be happy in the face of a terrible society, he embraces a place within its dark and desperate confines. In a spilt-second decision on live TV, he takes on the role of a symbol. He is an instigator and inspiration for violence, mayhem and chaos in Gotham.
After all this, what do we do with this film? Is it a call to violence? An example to overthrow organized society? Or might “Joker” be, in and of itself, a response? Slight disclaimer: I do not normally wax religious in my reviews, but I think that this is an appropriate time. I offer the words of Josh Larsen in his book, “Movies are Prayers”: [Christianity holds that] “humanity is hopeless and depraved without the grace of God … In [ a movie like this] there is no God, only sin” (58).
“Joker” is not a call to action. It is a view of reality. Looking at the society and characters in the film with disdain for humantiy is enough. So, in the film, when Arthur Fleck sees chaos and asks, “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” The answer is no. Humanity has always, and will always, be depraved without God’s grace. Sometimes we need to see and acknowledge the depravity in the world to better understand our constant need for grace, and maybe a movie like “Joker” can prompt us on that revelation.
– Director: Todd Phillips
– Staring: Joaquin Phoenix
– Genre: Psychological thriller
– Run-time: 122 min.
– Rated R
– Based on DC Comics characters – Won top prize at the 76th Venice International Film Festival
By Blake Hawkins