Controversial Masterpiece

“Joker” excellently portrays modern oppression of mentally ill

Jack Clay, Writer

This review originally appeared in the October 23, 2019 print edition of Prospective.

Coming out its resounding victory in the Venice Film Festival, “Joker,” directed by Todd Phillips, left audiences anxiously awaiting its release. This psychological allegory for modern society was slated to be the film of the year, a barn-burning masterclass of style, yet its critical review was lacking to say the least.  

The mixed reviews caused quite the controversy online, where Rotten Tomatoes rated the film at 75 percent. For reference, they rated “Dora and the Lost City of Gold higher than “Jokerat 84 percent. According to those critics, the film was stylistically unique but failed to actually say anything substantial. This upset many fans of Joaquin Phoenix and the title character, who insisted that the gratuitous violence and seemingly superficial imagery served to paint a deeper theme.

One thing that both critics and audiences agreed on is that Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is practically perfect, rivalling Heath Ledger’s acclaimed performance in 2008’s “The Dark Knight.” 

Upon viewing the film, that much is certainly true. At no point are you watching Joaquin Phoenix deliver his best Heath Ledger impression; he is his own character, fueled by mental illness to do horrendous crimes. His iconic new laugh, his unsettling costume and his constant ballet dancing are sure to cement him as a powerful figure of cinema for years to come.

Despite the name “Joker,” the character Arthur Fleck has little to do with any comic book inspiration; a popular analogy for the film is that it could have been named “Arthur” or “Something’s Wrong With Arthur” and the film would still make perfect sense. This departure from modern comic book cinema is striking, with the film reading more like “Taxi Driver” than “Iron Man” in every regard.

Many of the negative reviews, which revolve around the lack of a message in the film, don’t hold up upon actually viewing the film. The society depicted in the film isn’t the backdrop to a missing theme; it is the theme. The message of “Joker” can be summed up by a line spoken in the climax of the film, a chaotic and cathartic condemnation of society’s apathy for the mentally ill:  “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him? You get what you deserve.”

The cinematography is spectacular. Every frame of this movie is a well-composed artistic statement, from the grimy streets of Gotham City to the bright and clear skies. The first line of the movie is about how Gotham is in the middle of a sanitation worker strike, and it looks the part. Trash, homeless people scattered about and herds of dissatisfied commuters decorate the streets of Gotham City and put a face to the despair experienced by hundreds in the movie.

The script is the weakest link in “Joker.” There are a few leaps in logic, mostly explained away by Arthur’s mental illness, and the characters change from natural and conversational to dramatic and philosophical constantly. That’s not to say that this movie is ruined because of the lacking dialogue; it just distracts from an otherwise flawless film.

The music, composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir, starts out foreboding, but distant. As the events of the movie unfold, and Arthur Fleck descends into madness, the score becomes much more present, and in the end, it is near cacophonous, perfectly setting the uncomfortable mood of the film.

“Uneasy” is the best way to describe how “Joker” makes the viewer feel. In a superhero blockbuster, audiences may be on the edge of their seat with excitement at the action. In a comedy, audiences will laugh. Dramas make people melancholy. “Joker,” on the other hand, fills audiences with discomfort. No point in the movie was entirely enjoyable; even in the face of a clever joke, the audience laughed with a tinge of caution. The movie slowly forces the audience to grapple with the horrible society it portrays and notice the apt comparisons to our own.

The most bone-chilling part of the movie is how possible it would be for its fictional setting to parallel our own. In “Joker” and in today’s American society, there is a growing lower class of people, there are elitist talk show hosts and there is a taboo around mental illness. The problems experienced in our society all blow up in “Joker,” making the movie that much more discomfiting.

While this may not be a perfect film, or even an enjoyable film, it is an important film. “Joker” is a tale of the mentally ill and the oppressed. Despite the criticism it has received, it almost flawlessly throws our society in our faces, forcing the audience to grapple with the fact that this nightmare of a world is not much different from the one we live in.

4.5/5 Stars.