By Mique Watson
A piece of art’s problematic-ness is subjective to the viewer who consumes the art; there is no definite arbiter–or way of deciding–just what kinds of art are inherently, objectively problematic. Only the individual can deem something to be problematic. If certain individuals agree with others, a mass of individuals with like-minds (and nuanced values) come together, then we have a basic form of society.
Some things register as problematic because it goes against culture–or the ideas of a particular social group. To suggest that something is problematic because society or culture deems it so would be like suggesting that something is okay just because certain cultures deem it to be so, but I digress.
We live in quite an interesting age; an age in which “Old School” and “The Hangover” director Todd Phillips can come up with a film so disturbing that it feels almost too close to home. A film to stir even the most steeled of viewers; a film which might make you think about having background checks at theaters just to feel safe.
Gotham city here looks quite reminiscent of New York City in the late-1970s/early-1980s, (the color palate, I should say, reminded me quite a bit of a previous Golden Lion winner, “The Shape of Water”). Arthur Fleck, aka Joker, in this, is played by Joaquin Phoenix who has seemingly undergone a weight loss so dramatic that his ribcage and clavicles are disturbingly visible.
The film opens with Arthur, a rentable party clown enduring a savage mugging. We see, afterward, that he lives with his debilitated mother, Penny Fleck (American Horror Story alum, Frances Conroy) in a dilapidated apartment; he seems also to have developed this infatuation on his neighbor, single-mother played by Zazie Beetz (who also happens to star in a film I’m greatly anticipating: “Wounds”).
It is revealed that he has Pseudobulbar Affect, a condition that painfully forces him to erupt into spasms of random laughter; thus, explaining the various amounts of medication we see in his apartment and his visits to a social worker therapist.
“We live in quite an interesting age; an age in which “Old School” and “The Hangover” director Todd Phillips can come up with a film so disturbing that it feels almost too close to home.”
Arthur, we then learn, aspires to be a stand-up comedian. His delusional fantasies of success are compounded by a popular TV show he enjoys (hosted by a very Johnny Carson-like Robert De Niro). All of this, with a dark history of child abuse lingering behind his pained smile.
Arthur’s world is one of cruelty, from his colleagues at the rent-a-clown agency where he works who constantly mock him; to the group of thugs who beats him up; to a trio of men who viciously taunt him on the subway. In the third case, he finally snaps. “I killed those guys,” he laments later in the film, with his innocent childlike demeanor, “because they were awful.”
There is nothing defined about Arthur (thus, perhaps explaining the reason behind the film’s title being “Joker” without the article). From his random bouts of laughter to his, free and uncontrolled dancing (filmed in slow-mo!)– it is off-putting because Arthur conveys a sense of complete unpredictability; his goal seems to be nonexistent, his need to be liked is the sole thing which seems to move him–for most of the film, we do not actually get a sense that he is an individual who thrives to see the world in flames–all he is is someone who needs help and fast.
When his influence starts manifesting itself in the collective conscience of Gotham, it comes as a result of a completely unintentional yet dark act on his part. This is very telling of the role which the media has in society’s understanding of current-day issues.
Meanwhile, as Arthur goes deeper into his psychosis, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), a mayoral candidate in Gotham and father of opponent-to-be, Bruce, is another element that exacerbates Arthur’s depleting mental state. “I used to think my life was a tragedy,” Arthur whispers in a moment of realization; after everyone in his life—people he’s loved, liked, and even looked up to–have let him down. “But now I realize it’s a fucking comedy.”
“Joker” is not so much about the killer, however, as about the feeding frenzy he then goes on to (accidentally) inspire at the later part of the film. During the period of mass hysteria in Gotham, the media goes nuts; newspapers with front-page headlines and all. Philipps has never been a director known for understatement or subtlety–he’s the man responsible for “The Hangover” trilogy, for those not keeping track.
In this, however, subtlety is used to incredible effect in how Arthur’s gradual transformation into the horrific villain we know today is handled with such surgical precision.
We see him as one thing at the start of the film, and in the end, he seems to have completely changed; and this chance, in the context of the film feels completely earned. Philipps, in this, has demonstrated an understanding of how The Joker, in all his cartoonish villainy as achieved such a renown status in the annals of comic book history and seeks to probe its origins and offer up his own interpretation of how things have come to be; all with a stinging social commentary reminiscent of films like “Natural Born Killers” and “Spring Breakers”.
Yet, the film doesn’t have as much actual violence as you think it does; it’s more tone, perspective, and context that give you that perspective.
“This is not a film that presents mass murder as a logical conclusion to the breakdown of decency in society. This makes a provocative and compelling narrative due to how it takes into account the concepts circumstance and belief in the context of the character; villains are heroes in their own minds.”
Philipps is not exploitative with close-up shots of guts and exploding blood–it’s almost like he knows and acknowledges that too much exploitation will cheapen the film’s overall effect. Given the discussion surrounding the film, Philipps has clearly touched a nerve, because ultimately, this film isn’t about violence, nor does it condone mass murder or argue that mentally ill people are to be feared; rather, it depicts how we as a society respond to these things–and, thus being more provocative.
There has been lots of controversy surrounding how this film could potentially dare to humanize and tell the story of one of the most inhumane villains in comic book history. It’s arguable that this is precisely the point of the film; telling the backstory of an anti-hero to have a better understanding of his underlying motivations. This is not a film that presents mass murder as a logical conclusion to the breakdown of decency in society. This makes a provocative and compelling narrative due to how it takes into account the concepts circumstance and belief in the context of the character; villains are heroes in their own minds.
The film wants you to understand why Arthur has made those particular choices. Its goal is not to get the audience to sympathize with murder but rather, showcase how a cartoon villain–one known and loved by many (one who has been portrayed by terrific actors Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson) has come about as a result of the circumstances that plague us as a society today. It offers up a better and more comprehensive explanation than “I’m bad and I want to do evil” by addressing that in all these real-life mass shootings; it’s not the gun’s fault–it’s the person’s.
“Joker” doesn’t generalize those afflicted with mental illnesses as being automatically capable of evil; it tells the contained story of one man, and offers it up as a terrifying warning for things to come if we ignore the fact that people with mental illnesses should have easier access to better help.”
The film doesn’t force any noticeable political lecture or agenda in the “all guns ought to be banned” sense. Rather, it acknowledges that there are various root causes for these murders–one being, the stigma placed around mental illnesses and the dangers of having funding cut from facilities needed to give help and support to mentally ill individuals.
Another argument can be made for the film vilifying mental illness, or connecting mental illness to mass murder. It is unfair to say that it is unreasonable to have a specific antagonist be afflicted with a mental illness and never be violent. People with mental illnesses are far more likely to hurt themselves than anyone else, and are much less likely to be violent; (I say this as someone who watches lots of serial killer documentaries–thanks for enabling me, Netflix!).
Mental illness does indeed have a role in pushing someone to do something as utterly inhumane as what is showcased in the film. “Joker” doesn’t generalize those afflicted with mental illnesses as being automatically capable of evil; it tells the contained story of one man, and offers it up as a terrifying warning for things to come if we ignore the fact that people with mental illnesses should have easier access to better help.
All that and I haven’t yet mentioned Phoenix’s incredible performance. This is a performance that explores what it is like to be a lonely, unbalanced man and it is absolutely riveting. This can be attributed to Phoenix’s radiant work as the title character. It’s quite the strange, eerie performance (as Phoenix’s usually are); his Joker is undeniably mad despite displaying a sort of gentle childlike innocence, accompanies with a laugh that echoes pain, suffering, loneliness, frustration, and fear–a laugh which draws on the most primal emotions which we all experience. And that makes the film all the more horrifyingly alarming.