Movie Review: Disillusionment and absurdism make “The Joker” a haunting commentary and character study
Music and Society Editor
In the moments before an explosive outburst, Joker muses, “I used to think my life was a tragedy, but now I realize it’s a comedy.”
This statement is alarming in part because of actor Joaquin Phoenix’s deadpan, unsettling delivery but more so because of its cynicism and absurdism. These themes course through “The Joker,” directed by Todd Phillips, as protagonist Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is pitted against his environment and everyone in it, desperately clawing for any semblance of acceptance or comfort.
Fleck cannot catch a break; he gets repeatedly jumped working as a clown, he’s failing as a stand-up comedian, he lives with his senile, unstable mother in a public housing project and his mental health ravages his personality. At one point in the film, he says, “I’ve never been happy a single moment of my life,” speaking to his isolation.
Long shots of him framed small in the center of the frame throughout the film visually convey his insignificance in the cityscape.
Additionally, Gotham City is shown to be a crumbling urban nightmare with every square inch covered in graffiti and trash piled up in the streets on account of a garbage strike. The desolation of the cityscape alone signals disillusionment. It is reminiscent of New York City in the 1970s.
This visual comparison serves in conjunction with thematic comparisons to Martin Scorcese’s “Taxi Driver,” whose protagonist, Travis Bickle, and Arthur Fleck have a lot in common. Bickle is similarly pitted against his environment, witnessing the rank character of the city and increasingly losing hope, leading him to radical, criminal action.
Arthur Fleck rapidly descends into madness over the course of the film, creating his identity as the Joker. The loss of his sanity is brilliantly conveyed by unreliable, nonlinear narrative perspective, presenting Fleck’s conflicting view of reality with the truth.
Joaquin Phoenix’s otherworldly performance is what drives the point home. Phoenix’s sense of space and control of his body through contorting and dancing offer an unsettling marker of how Fleck interacts with the world differently, even at the physical level. Also, Phoenix’s portrayal of Fleck sobbing through uncontrollable laughter due to his mental condition is visceral, showing the agony and madness taking control of his very being.
Once Fleck makes his transition into the Joker, the audience can’t help but question whether he is completely to blame. Cuts in funding strip him of access to mental health services and medication, letting his illness run rampant, Thomas Wayne and other bourgeois community leaders view him with disdain when they consider his existence at all and talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert de Niro) makes him the butt of his jokes on live television.
Within all these elements are socio-political commentaries about unacceptable mental health care, the visibility of the urban poor and the jaggedness of media. As the film climaxes, this ideological agenda becomes less than subtle as riots tear across Gotham to “kill the rich” and fight fascism with Joker as a figurehead after he commits a brutal crime that sparks said radicalism. As Gotham descends into anarchy, Joker fully takes form, becoming the iconic face of mayhem.
“The Joker” is a bold step for a comic book film, furthering the intensity and brutality of Christopher Nolan’s modern classic, “The Dark Knight.” While not fully living up to Heath Ledger’s legendary performance as Joker in that film, Phoenix’s take is more corporeal and emphasizes the depressed, psychotic instability of the character, making audiences empathize with his despair despite his horrible actions. The film’s longer form as a character-study works and will hopefully inspire greater character development in the superhero genre in the future, something that is a continual struggle.