Few films in the past five years have divided critical and audience opinion to the extent of ‘Joker’. Comments on the film have ranged from “It laughs at disability” through to “It is a dangerous exploration of mental health”. However, the truth is ‘Joker’ opens an uncomfortable door into societies views on criminality, isolation and mental health. A door that society has struggled to negotiate for generations; but deserves exploration.
In a world where our concept of good and evil is starkly defined. We often find it easier to believe in the concept that some people are inherently good and others pure evil. With this in mind our society rarely allows for the grey areas that exist between both. In other words the reality that we live in a world where good people can do bad things, and bad people can be product of the society they live in. In effect these grey area’s challenge our more comfortable perceptions. Uncomfortably asking us all to explore our own role in creating the good and bad of the world we live in.
Joker is controversial and divisive due to its bravery in opening these very doors we keep shut. Examining how a man can descend into darkness due to the social constructs surrounding him. How alienation can lead to belonging in the most dangerous of areas. And how society can choose to ignore and ridicule those who don’t fit its model of perfection.
There are challenging themes of mental health wrapped into ‘Joker’, but we live in a society where untreated mental health conditions can and sometimes do lead to crime. Equally there are challenging themes of social isolation and victimisation in its narrative. But once again, we live in society full of people who suffer victimisation and isolation daily. People who do not fit the narrow social constructs of what society deems as ‘normal’.
If Joker makes you feel uncomfortable, it’s supposed to. If it makes you feel empathy for the Arthur, it’s supposed to. And finally if it challenges your views on the black and white nature of good versus evil, it’s supposed to.
Joker is not only a masterclass in filmmaking, it is a conversational piece of cinematic art. Taking one of the most sinister comic book characters ever created, and layering what you thought you knew with nuanced social commentary. This is a film which does not encourage violence anymore than a whole host of horror films in recent years. With media scrutiny and criticism seemingly aimed more at a concept that all comic book films should inhabit a happy Marvel style universe; a subversion of the depth and diversity of the comic book world. A literary world where many characters are adult and not child focussed.
Joker never makes any attempt to dovetail itself into the wider DC Comics universe. Director Todd Phillips choosing to allow his film the fly free of restrictions. As a result creating links to the Batman origin story that while clear are also gloriously different to anything we have seen before. While Joaquin Phoenix is truly astonishing. Giving us a character study of layered emotion, devastating sincerity, anger and humility. The mask of comic book evil removed for the world to see the man beneath the makeup. While the complexity, danger and isolation of sitting on the fringes of society are laid bare. This is Phoenix not only giving an award worthy performance, but also reinventing a character who first appeared in 1940. Any comparisons to previous incarnations redundant as Phoenix focuses on Arthur, not the ‘The Joker’ of comic book legend.
Todd Phillips bravery in taking things in a new direction is admirable. This is a director who makes no effort to play to the fans of the source material. Creating a completely new world where characters can develop and be reborn. With Gotham City firmly placed into a modern parable of divide, social inequality and personal invisibility.
Meanwhile Lawrence Sher’s Cinematography is rich in the darkness and light of Arthur’s journey. Moments of happiness contrasted with the descent into darkness. Arthurs creation of a new mask vividly standing out against the city and people who have isolated him. While Hildur Guðnadóttir mournful cello score wraps Phoenix’s character beautifully.
Joker is designed to make it’s audience squirm, digging deep into subconscious perceptions of good and evil. Its sharp violence matched equally with empathy and sadness. However, this does create a dynamic that is not suitable for younger audiences. And should have led to an 18 certificate in British cinema’s.
In the hands of Phoenix ‘Joker’ gives us one the finest character studies ever seen on screen. A bold, daring, devastating and beautiful film, that challenges us all.
Director: Todd Phillips
Joaquin Phoenix also appears in The Sisters Brothers
Robert De Niro also appears in Coming of Age – The Essential Collection