Joker — Some Impressions On The Film
Sitting at the cozy and barely filled Barnes and Noble Café at Prudential Center Boston mid-day Sunday, I grew tired of reading and decided to scroll through the AMC app. I’d been wanting to go down to the movie theater for a while now, and hadn’t really come across any interesting movies. I really didn’t want to go back home or spend the rest of my afternoon at the bookstore.
The first film I saw listed was Joker, and there were several time slots available, so that was a plus. The other movies I had glanced at before, with none of them catching my attention.
Reading through the film summary posted on the AMC app, I was convinced enough to check out some reviews on Google. I was instantly struck by some of the articles I was reading, both in relation to the massive amount of money the film was grossing in its opening weekend, as well as the reports of incidents at movie theaters and people being afraid that the film might incite violence. I also found reviews that raved about the film, and insisted that readers check it out. Luckily, I had just enough time to make it downtown to catch the one o’clock showing.
The movie theater was probably a third of the way full, which was not so surprising for the time of day. The film began with the camera zooming behind the calm back of a man sitting in front of a mirror, as he patiently adorns his face with paint, a clear indication that this is our main character. In a peculiar fashion, and in the midst of donning the iconic face, Arthur Fleck, Joker’s real name, forces the corners of his mouth wide apart with his fingers. This rather confusing opening scene quickly sets the expectation for the viewer that this is not your typical superhero (or in this case, villain) movie, but it also reveals that we can expect a good amount of bizarreness.
That was one of the aspects of the film that I found compelling: the grounding of the story within the parameters of a reality that viewers could understand. Reading the film title, and watching this introductory scene, you could sense we could expect a unique look into the comic book world.
As the film progressed, a menagerie of scenes and character insights fill the audience, or at least filled me, with a barrage of emotions. Mostly, though, the film left me feeling quite disturbed, and most definitely saddened by the main character’s struggles. The film’s violence, though not as frequent, was also delivered with massive meaning, in my opinion.
There were several aspects of the film that I found really worked for me as a viewer.
The actor delivered such a magnificent performance in the title role, bringing depth to a character that could have easily been lost in caricature. His embodiment of Arthur Fleck a.k.a. Joker allowed the audience to delve within the complexity of the human mind. At moments, we are drawn by the love, amusement and hope in Arthur’s heart. At other times, Joker harnesses the most base of human emotions that any of us is capable of being consumed by: pity, fear, pain, anger, hatred. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance juxtaposes the dichotomy of a lunatic with that of innocent victim. In sum, he makes us come to the realization that any one of us could be “Joker.”
The portrayal of the city
The film’s location is set to resemble some place like New York City, which provided a realistic element to the film, allowing the viewer to really dive deep into the complexities of the main character, rather than be distracted by a more bizarre setting. The plot unravels sometime in the 1970’s or 1980’s. The nostalgia of this era was successfully delivered throughout. The environment in which the film takes place lends superbly to the circumstances that ultimately drive Fleck to the edge.
I truly appreciated that the violence in the film was kept to a minimum. When violence did occur, it was usually consequential of something that occurred earlier in the film, and not just the simple gratification of violence or desire for blood. The one scene of violence that was a bit peculiar was the murder of one of Arthur’s “clown” co-workers by the main character, though this murder may be surmised as resulting from the antagonism that builds throughout the film, from the very moment we see the murdered man handing Arthur the gun that will get him fired, and which Arthur uses to commit murder for the first time. Moreover, the scenes where Arthur is verbally and physically assaulted first by teenagers, and then by the men on the train, were well situated, helping to highlight Jokers’ perceived lower position within this society.
The Thomas Wayne storyline.
The addition of the Thomas Wayne storyline was definitely appropriate. It wasn’t until the middle of the film, when we learn that Thomas Wayne’s son’s name is Bruce, that it clicked for me. This, in my humble opinion, was a great way to tie the film into the world of Batman. It was appropriate that the revelation results from the supposed relationship between Thomas Wayne and Arthur’s mother, as it simultaneously leads the audience to understand the roots of Joker’s mental problems. Furthermore, the fact that Bruce’s parents’ deaths result from the riots ignited inadvertently by Joker’s actions plays well into the eventual rivalry between the villain and the hero. As someone who is not at all knowledgeable about comic books and superheroes, even I could appreciate how gracefully this reference was weaved into the film.
Elements that Faltered
Indirect commentary about mental illness
One of my favorite lines from the film comes when Arthur is last speaking with his social worker. Semi-passionately reacting to the news that he no longer will be provided with the social services needed to treat his psychological condition, he dryly states: “All I have are negative thoughts.” As someone who has struggled with negative thoughts, I can appreciate the sincerity with which this line was surely written.
However, the portrayal of mental illness throughout the film felt short of impactful, and seemed even forced at times. In particular, the notes in Arthur’s journal about others’ reactions (or lack thereof) to mental illness, or his written thoughts which hinted at suicide, appeared out of place. Also, the insistence on Arthur’s bizarre behavior throughout the film, both from the comments of other characters, and from the disdainful glances he frequently receives, lead to a blurring of the line between social awkwardness and mental illness. Clearly, the main character was afflicted by mental illness, yet much of his behavior seemed incongruous with his supposed condition.
I wholeheartedly agree that mental illness is a topic that deserves so much more attention. However, the film did not deliver in this respect.
I was not too keen on the fact that probably half of the film, if not all of it, was based on the main character’s hallucinations. Of course, I’m not trying to judge the artistic desires of the film’s writer and its director, and perhaps a second viewing might allow one to better understand the purpose of this artistic device in the film. However, I was left confused by the fact that Arthur supposedly had imagined the entirety of his relationship with one of his neighbors. The relationship itself did not feel real from the beginning, and by proving that it was all a figment of an unbalanced man’s imagination, it just made its place in the story unjustifiable. Whatever little emotional investment the viewer already had in this relationship was completely undermined by the revelation.
Joker as an aspiring stand-up comedian
We all have dreams and desires, and falling short of them can certainly provoke desperation. Still, a bit more thinking might have led the writers to come up with a more compelling reason why the title character would assume this name and iconic look. Perhaps as a younger viewer, I might be missing something about stand-up comedy, the 80’s, or the whole Joker origin story. Still, just like the focus on mental illness, the whole idea that Arthur wants to be a stand-up comic and moonlights as a clown to make a living that supports him and his mom, though definitely plausible, is not as compelling as the film writers might have hoped.
There is an insistence throughout the film about the plight of the working class, and it would have been more interesting for this commentary on rich versus poor if Arthur worked in some more conventional job. I mean, how many people can actually relate to the career aspirations of a stand-up comedian?
Joker’s rant at the end
By the climax of the film, when Arthur has finally unleashed and embraced a more violent disposition towards the world that scorns him — influenced, of course, by his mental illness — we find ourselves witnessing a bizarre scene. Arthur, fully transformed into “Joker” both in dress and personality, is invited to a television talk show hosted by Robert De Niro’s character, Murray Franklin, a comedian himself. After some awkward banter between the two characters, Joker goes off on some strange rant about society, us versus them, even though in the previous scene, Arthur insists that he does not want to make a political statement.
Even De Niro’s character’s response to Joker’s confession of murder is surprisingly tepid. Overall, the scene, which ends with Franklin’s death, serves more to underscore Joker’s growing nihilism and lunacy than to provide any gripping message for the audience.
This is truly a character-driven film. Most of the elements in the movie served to reveal Arthur Fleck’s unfolding personality, leading to an eventual metamorphosis into Joker. Despite the great effort, and especially by the end of the film, this portrayal of the complexity of human character is transformed into a caricature of “crazy.”
If you do watch the film, you’re sure to experience a plethora of emotions that will be difficult to shake off afterwards. Trust me.
Please let me know what your thoughts were about the film, and if you agree or disagree with some of the points I mentioned above. Thanks for reading and sharing!