Powered by a standout performance from Joaquin Phoenix as well as pointed social commentary, Todd Phillips’ “Joker” offers a chilling portrait of the mind of the unstable clown prince.
Set in 1981 Gotham City, a fictionalized New York City and Chicago, the film tells the story of Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a mentally ill, impoverished stand-up comedian who works at a clown-for-hire company. Fleck finds himself repeatedly battered physically and mentally by a society that has deemed him an outcast, unfit to rise in any social category and ultimately doomed to keep failing.
His ostracization stems largely from his mental illness, which causes him to laugh or cry uncontrollably whenever the intensity of any situation rises, a condition known as pathological laughter and crying. Fleck’s therapist tells him that Gotham has stopped funding the program that gives him the treatment and medicine that allow him to be a functioning member of society.
After many unfortunate events, Fleck gives in to his inner demons, describing his descent into the eponymous character of the Joker with a poetic phrase. While smoking a cigarette, he declares, “I used to think my life was a tragedy, but now I realize, it’s a comedy.”
Inciting strong responses, this film offers viewers an eye into a neglected portion of society. All the humor in the film is dark and disorderly, and no sense of relief is offered from the misery the character seems to endure. The only way for Fleck to cure himself is to inflict the total chaos that rains upon Gotham after he becomes his final and true form: the Joker.
The movie can be seen as humorous commentary on someone who would be invisible to society, so disregarded that no average citizen would ever associate with them. It is dedicated to the idea of the nobody, a person in a society that is already assigned a fate by eyes that overlook them, and how this nobody flips the script simply by declaring that “enough is enough.”
The message in the film is as important as it is dangerous. It makes the audience uncomfortable, as it challenges the social archetypes that distance viewers from the protagonist. The movie counters the human condition of labeling the strange as evil without truly contemplating on how society transformed the otherwise normal.
However, “Joker” is, in the most literal sense, art. Phoenix’s performance is brilliant and enveloping, as he welcomes the viewer into the center of the Joker’s madness and offers a plausible justification for his heinous actions. While the performance is not as dynamic or powerful as Heath Ledger’s in “The Dark Knight”, Phoenix’s performance still offers an engrossing view into the mind of the villain.
The grim visuals and uninviting set design only enhance the mental state of the character and create an inescapable void from societal repression. The movie’s environment and visuals seem deliberately designed to cultivate this image and create a sense of restriction and containment within this world.
While the film offers no clear standout message, it can be seen as a tale of caution, alluding to the formation of someone like the Joker if society remains ignorant and how many people exist in a society that can explode at any given moment.
Gotham City makes it impossible for Fleck to be happy and leaves him seeking complete and utter disarray as a means to crumble the foundations of a society that never allowed him a chance for a better life. The film does a wonderful job of portraying this disorder and illuminates many of the problems the mentally ill may face within society.
“Joker” paints a moving portrait of the madness and motivation within the iconic comic book villain that will leave viewers questioning their place within their societal framework and hoping for a more secure future.