So, I have been struggling to write a review for Joker (2019), every time I sit down to write a proper review I seem to just sit with a blank page. Instead I have decided to just write up my thoughts, maybe it will be a jumbled mess, but I feel like I have much to say on the film itself. Now SPOILER warning obviously, because I can’t write about my feelings without discussing what happens in the film itself. If you are trying to avoid spoilers, best to stop now and click away. With that out of the way, let’s get to it …
Even before the film was even released it become a source of controversy, media outlets were reporting about the dangers of the film, how it could ignite violence and give people dangerous idea. It was almost like no one had seen a film before or read a book, but it also felt like the media mass were reporting this opening something would happen upon the release for something to report on.
I need to get this out of the way; films, music, books, games or any type of art does not cause violence. It has been a scape goat for a long time, almost like instead of tackling the real problems with society lets just blame an easy target and not even attempt to fix the issue. The mass media has a real problem with how it reports certain events, if there is a killer loose or someone has decided to shoot people, they make that person famous and give little thought to the victims. Why is this more dangerous than say a film? Because it is real life, a film is not real and with all the films I have seen and believe me I have seen some extreme and disturbing stuff, not once have I felt influenced to do anything or copy what I have seen.
With that little rant out of the way let’s get to the film itself, Joker serves as a one-shot film with an origin story for one of DC’s most popular characters and Batman’s main villain Joker. This isn’t really set in any of DC’s stories, it serves a stand alone that could have happened in a future film for DC. The main character of the film is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally ill man with a neurological disorder that causes him to break out laughing at any time. He looks after his ailing mother Penny (Francis Conroy) and works as a clown. He doesn’t have much in the way of genuine human interactions, aside from getting picked on and beaten down. It is something sad to see, because we’ve probably all felt like an outcast and picked on. Things only get worse for Arthur, after his attack a co-worker gives him a gun, and during another late-night attack he kills three upper class men. All the while Arthur dreams about being in a relationship with Sophie (Zazie Beets), a single mother who lives up the hall, has fantasies about appearing on a talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) and being a successful stand-up comedian.
During the film, Arthur pretty much goes through a massive downward spiral, where those he should be able to depend on let him down. His mother has been lying to him his entire life and hiding his true parentage and early life of abuse. The system lets him down, no longer can he get medication and see a social worker as mental health funding has been cut. While this happens, Gotham as a city is in unrest and the under class are trying to fight back against those who have more. The three men he murdered (while in full clown costume) has gotten headline attention and the people of Gotham feel like this ‘clown’ has committed the murders to send a message. People start wearing clown masks and protest against the city.
Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) plays a part here, he is one of the rich men in the city and laying down a campaign for mayor. His isn’t just someone in the background, Arthur’s mother Penny used to work for the Wayne’s and this is where the backstory aspect becomes a big play. According to Penny, Thomas is Arthur’s biological father. When Arthur finds out, he seeks to know the truth and confronts Thomas at an event where Thomas tells Arthur his mother his insane and he was adopted and there was no affair. Arthur decides to steal Penny’s file from Arkham Asylum to see for himself where he finds out about his abusive child hood and sees a certificate of adoption.
I find this part of the film has many who have seen it interpret something different and it is not easy to see why. Arthur finds a photo of his mother from when she was working for the Wayne’s and on the back it is signed TW. To me this perhaps was the only clue and last piece that wasn’t destroyed to prove that Penny was telling the truth and she was made out to be crazy. As I saw it, Thomas a man of money and power had an affair and an illegitimate child. To hide the truth and protect himself he used his power to ensure Penny was drugged up and deemed insane, faking adoption papers. Others however have not seen the events in the same way and conclude that Penny was just crazy and living her own fantasy as Arthur does. I believe Penny and Thomas conceived Arthur, it isn’t a far stretch to believe a powerful man would cover up an affair.
This entire ordeal is what seems to send Arthur over the edge however, he kills his mother while she is in hospital, he kills the co-worker who gave him the gun, and after his failed stand up routine has gone ‘viral’ he’s invited to appear on the Murray Franklin Show. It seems after the murders he has committed he is going to use his chance to appear on TV to commit suicide and end his own suffering. He dresses himself up in clown make up and a nice suit, dyes his hair green and acts as in a way we haven’t seen him act, as if he is free of his own prison. No longer is Arthur invisible, he appears on the show, even with some questioning about whether he should appear dressed the way he is and if he’s making a political statement. Arthur was only asked to appear because he was made fun of, a running theme for Arthur in his life so the intentions of Murray and his producers were not kind. Arthur now wanting to be called Joker appears on the show, reveals he committed the murders and wasn’t political about it or making a statement. He’s angry about his treatment, and he’s broken. He shoots and kills Murray on live TV and chaos erupts. Even while he’s in the back of a police car it gets hit and he’s rescued by other masked people and almost held up like an idol. During this, the Wayne’s get shot and killed in front of their son Bruce (who will become Batman) by one of the masked clowns.
Joker with the blood on his hands paints a smile on his face, and the film seems to have ended there but we see him in Arkham Asylum taking to a doctor. He laughs at a joke and says she wouldn’t get it, and then in a weird display he is seen running down the halls with blood on his feet. It could be implied he killed the doctor and has lost all touch with reality. With so much in the film being a fantasy and the theme throughout focusing on that, it wouldn’t be a far stretch to think that most of what we see is a man’s fantasy as he deals with being in Arkham Asylum. Maybe the only true part of Arthur’s story is his laugh at the end, it isn’t a forced or fake laugh, it is real. He could be laughing because at the end the joke has been on the audience and none of what we have seen is real, just his warped version of it.
There are many ways to look at the film, the character of the Joker has always been an unreliable narrator and that has crossed over into this film. Just how much is unreliable? It would really depend on how someone sees it. It isn’t really made clear but there are hints throughout the film, including what we are told is a fantasy. We can gather the setting is meant to be like 1980’s and Gotham mirrors New York City, with the same realistic problems the real world has. Because it is a ‘comic book’ movie doesn’t mean it needs to have heroes or fantastical elements, it wants to ground itself in reality and be a character study.
It is a character driven piece, yes, it is perhaps one of Joaquin Phoenix’s best performances, he’s a presence on screen that is hard to look away from. Does it work as a character study? Not entirely, there isn’t a fully fleshed out character with Arthur, we get a hint of who he is but what aspects of him are real or imaged? The things we are told are what leads to his full break down, we don’t know much else though and that is both a good and bad thing. Joker has always been a mysterious character, the events that happen in the film mirror that in the sense of Arthur is a mystery and that does work.
I know the film wanted to make a strong statement about the Mental Health Care System and how mentally ill people are treated, but I don’t think it achieved that as well as it could have. In a way Arthur is detached from the audience, like he is with everyone in the film. Maybe if we did know more about him, it would be not as ambiguous of a film and left us with nothing to discuss.
Joker does wear its influences on its sleeve, there is a real Taxi Driver (1976) feel to it. The King Of Comedy (1982) is another one this has a lot in common with, Scorsese was a clear influence here and not a coincidence Robert De Niro was cast in his role. There are elements of other films and stories such as The Killing Joke, Falling Down (1994) and Christine (2016), which is a real-life story about a newsreader whose battle with depression ends as she commits suicide live on TV. Whether it is a good thing it has been made in influences from other sources, depends on the audience. Personally, I liked the feel of the film, it reminded me of 1970’s cinema and stood out from other ‘comic’ inspired films.
I liked the film for the most part, there are some issues I have with it, and some have to do with Todd Phillips. Having a dwarf joke in the film wasn’t at all needed and it’s 2019 this stuff isn’t funny. I don’t know if Todd Phillips really understands what’s funny anymore and his blaming of ‘woke’ culture as to why you can’t do comedy is incredibly stupid. In this film there was no reason to have a dwarf visual joke, just like there was no reason to be transphobic with The Hangover II (2011). Moving away from that, the film wanted to be deep but it didn’t dive into the themes it presented us with, such as the Mental Health Care System as mentioned above. It would have really benefited from giving a clear focus on what it really wanted to say
Does the film make a hero out of Joker? I don’t think it did, and I don’t think he’s meant to be a role model for the ‘have nots’ of society either. I think what it does show well is not to worship false idols, Arthur didn’t kill to make a statement, he killed because he lost touch with reality. Those who were seen wearing the masks and protesting took a story the media ran and went with it to suit their agenda. It is likely if DC bring back the Joker in a future him, he would be one using what Arthur did and running with it. In a way the film represents sadness and emptiness, with its bleak feel and washed out look.
Is this a dangerous film? No it isn’t, it doesn’t glorify anything, Arthur isn’t someone you want to be like. It will and is dividing opinions, some think it’s rubbish and others a masterpiece. That is the beauty of opinions, they aren’t always the same and people have different views. Is it a good film? Yes it is, it’s well made, mostly well written and has incredible performances. I don’t feel like it should have been made so controversial before it even came out. Having some pre-formed idea of the film will likely taint that viewing experience. I think there are those who have seen too much or too little in the film, that discussions on the film are just out of control. You can love, like or hate this film, you can see it 10 times you can chose not to see it at all. It’s all subjective in the end, whether a film has a message you agree or disagree with it is your choice on whether to give in or not.
I liked the film, I got something out of it and with everything surrounding the film and how I was feeling it has lead me to write over 2000 words and I am not even sure I have something to say. The Joker is a film, you can choose to see it or not to see it. This ridiculous TEDtalk has been brought to you by Marcella Papandrea, likely over tired and over thinking.