One of the most anticipated films of 2019 and without a doubt the most controversial, the infamous Clown Prince of Crime has gotten yet another film, this time in “Joker,” a stand-alone film dedicated solely to the character examination of this iconic villain.
Ever since “Joker” — directed and co-written by Todd Phillips — premiered last month at the Venice Film Festival where it won the top prize, the film has generated a tremendous amount of controversy due to the way many feel that the film could inspire mentally-ill individuals or internet-community members known as incels to commit violent acts. Theaters across the country have called for increased security, families of the victims of the Aurora Theatre shootings in 2012 have condemned the film, and authorities have been monitoring potentially suspicious behavior.
While those concerns are valid, “Joker” isn’t trying to idolize psychopaths and inspire any killing sprees. What Phillips does is rather examine the societal phenomena and issues that fragment society and leave several individuals, especially those with mental illnesses, behind.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, an aspiring stand-up comedian who exists as a clown-for-hire in the crumbling city of Gotham. Arthur spends almost all of his life in solitude, being violently harassed by those on the streets and is completely disregarded by society. Suffering from childhood trauma and a neurological condition that causes uncontrollable laughter, Arthur is pushed too far and eventually falls down a spiral of brutal violence.
Playing the role of such an iconic comic book character, especially after the late Heath Ledger’s earth-shattering portrayal in 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” is a daunting challenge for any actor. Luckily, Phillips assigns one of the world's greatest actors to take on the role, leading to one of the most unsettling and astonishing performances you’ll ever see.
The depths that Joaquin Phoenix took and executed as an actor become overwhelming to the viewer. Losing an astounding 52 pounds to give this psychopathic character a diseased skeleton look, Phoenix masters every subtle nuance and move that Arthur takes, bringing this character to life. It makes us connect to him due to his agony, yet fear him due to his unsettling actions and disturbing behavior. Phoenix acts like a 10-year-old boy who doesn’t understand the world, his every action filled with a lack of confidence and constant fear.
While it’s impossible not to somewhat empathize with Arthur, his behavior becomes increasingly unsettling and haunting as the film progresses thanks to the loose-cannon of a performance that Phoenix delivers with staggering intensity and depth. After only about five minutes into the film, it becomes evident that this was a part he was born to play.
Phillips, known for making raunchy comedies like “The Hangover,” excels as a director who makes it clear that he not only has a vision but that he can reach heights as a creative artist. He creates not only an intimate character study about the horrors of social isolation but depicts a universal story about societal fragmentation and mental illness, one that can hit audiences and stay with them.
He doesn’t preach to us about the need for societal reforms, but rather expresses what the film is trying to say eloquently through the chilling and disturbing lifestyle of Arthur. Blending both characterization and societal examination is a task many directors fail at when pursuing their ambition, but Phillips excels tremendously at getting his message across.
From a technical standpoint, “Joker” is jaw-dropping. The film captures the alienation of Arthur and his harsh environment with a stunning noir style that mirrors films like “Taxi Driver” and “A Clockwork Orange” but with a modern tone that evokes a bleak hopelessness that’s intoxicating. Rich cinematography and an inviting score make the film impossible to turn away from.
Much of the controversy surrounding “Joker” is its violence. While there are indeed moments of violence, the real horror isn’t the actual violence but the reasoning behind its occurrence. The transformation of Arthur Fleck into the Joker is truly discomforting, not only because of the heartbreaking reasons that lead him to violence but because of how society specifically shaped him unintentionally.
“Joker” acts on this idea on how being a victim of bullying can lead you down a path of violence, capturing what it’s like to be mentally ill through the eyes of Joaquin Phoenix's master acting.
Is society to blame for the violence and hopelessness caused by so many killers? It’s a troubling thought, but one that can’t be ignored. Phillips and Phoenix dive into it and give us something to think about, not turning their eyes away from something just because it may be uncomfortable to explore.
Surrounding the other dialogue “Joker” is creating, there’s much to speculate as to how this film will connect to future DC Comic films. With both a young Bruce Wayne and his father Thomas featured in this film, one can hope that we’ll see this Joker in other films. Despite Phillips denying any plans to continue Arthur’s story, it seems absurd not to feature this intriguing character and brilliant performance in other films. Having a villain with a clear and interesting backstory could be a strong asset if the Joker were to appear as a villain in a future film.
“Joker” may be an unsettling film to watch, but it elevates the comic book genre through its artistic style and bold move to add an infectious amount of grit to one of pop culture's most famous characters.
Like many other films, “Joker” will most likely be met with criticism for a while before finally being appreciated years later. In a time where everyone is quick to point fingers and criticize without giving enough time to analyze what exactly they’re criticizing, many will miss what “Joker” is trying to get at and express.
Final Grade: A+
Dominic LeRose is a staff writer for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of his work, click here.