“Joker”: A Warning Sign for a Society Fueled by Apathy

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As Reviewed By Ethan Tanti

*Note: This film contains controversial themes and issues that reflect the opinion of the author and are not associated with the views of Bellarmine College Prep or The Bell Online as a whole*

Intense, controversial, problematic, irresponsible. These words have littered media outlets and fueled headlines ever since Todd Philip’s Joker made its debut at the Toronto Film Festival and saw a wide release on October 4, 2019. A unique film nonetheless, Joker has had its fair share of both praise and disparagement by the media, being heralded by some as a masterpiece and by others as a soulless waste of time. Yet, after seeing the R-Rated movie three times in the one week span following its release, I can confidently state that the film fits somewhere snugly in between these categorizations, serving as a harrowing character study led by one of the decade’s most masterful performances by Joaquin Phoenix and a brilliant societal message, but in moments falling short in its depiction of a man’s descent into utter madness due to its occasional lack of direction.

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-Spoilers Below-

To begin with a brief synopsis of the movie, Joker is about a struggling standup comedian, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), who is essentially seeing his life unravel before his eyes as he “struggles to find his way” in Gotham City, a city that is meant to be representative of some of the darkest aspects of America today. Serving as a standalone film from any other DC movies or the wide arching DC Extended Universe, Joker is Todd Philip’s stab at giving insight into one of the most iconic comic book and movie villains of all time. The film stars the likes of Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, and Brian Tyree Henry.

Let me begin by saying that Hildur Guðnadóttir’s original film score for the movie is amazing and is a perfect way of establishing what Joker is as a film itself. Music plays a very integral part of the narrative, as the character Arthur Fleck is extremely inspired by dance and the music he hears within his soul. The movie’s film score does an excellent job of taking us into the melodies and ambiance that would be found within the heart and mind as Arthur Fleck.

I must say, the moment that Joker was announced to be starring Joaquin Phoenix (my favorite current actor in Hollywood), it instantly became my most hyped release of 2019. I could dedicate this entire review as to how blatantly amazing Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is as Arthur Fleck, but I believe that it has already been so highly regarded that there really isn’t much to say that hasn’t yet been said by other media outlets. Some might talk about his tantalizing laugh and smile, but I believe the true brilliance in the role comes with the softer aspects of Arthur Fleck’s depiction that do a great job of establishing the unorthodox nature of the character himself, while still creating an important emotional divide between the audience and the character who evolves into a sadistic murderer. The first time this side of Arthur clicked was in the first half-hour of the film, when Barry, one of Arthur’s coworkers at Ha Ha’s, first offers him a gun. Arthur looks up at him, and after looking around at the rest of the people in the room, speaks to him in an awkward, half-whisper of a voice and says, “You’re… not supposed to have a gun!” For any other actor, this could be delivered at face value as a simple line of dialogue meant to progress the story. Yet, Joaquin Phoenix makes Arthur Fleck deliver this line in a mocking manner as if he is trying to tell a joke to a constantly following audience that exists only in his mind. The dimension that this adds to the character is paramount, as it sets a precedent for the rest of the film. Arthur Fleck is played like a man who always believes he is performing for someone, whether it is in his living room as he is imagining a conversation while he is dancing with a gun in his hand, or while he is fantasizing about his own public suicide. Moments like these are when the film could have easily fallen apart and turned into a slow, disoriented mess. Instead, a perfect mixture of Joaquin Phoenix and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s film score makes these moments feel extremely personal, to the moment’s benefit.

One of the aspects where I can see how many felt underwhelmed by the pacing and focus of the story is that there seems to be a solid camp of people who left the theater saying, “That’s it?”, or felt as if they never truly got a chance to see Arthur Fleck finally as the Joker (other than in the movie’s final thirty minutes). Although this is a valid criticism, I would make the argument that this problem with the film is rooted in a completely different issue with the movie’s depiction of Arthur Fleck and his mad descent into the Clown Prince of Gotham. The issue is fairly simple: Arthur Fleck never becomes the Joker we expect him to be. Instead, from the opening scene to the closing shot of him walking through the halls with blood on his shoes, an argument can be made that with Arthur Fleck, the only two things that have changed are his tolerance for violence and the amount of hope he has in his outlook on the world. Other than this, Arthur Fleck is still the same mentally unstable, angry, cast aside human being that he was when he was staring in his makeup mirror, trying to force himself to smile as a single tear streamed down his cheek. The character that Arthur Fleck becomes is not the Joker that is representative of the forces of Chaos and Unhinged Evil. The Joker has always been one of the only truly effective characters of all time who have gotten away with the idea of doing evil just for the sake of being evil. This is a masterful, chaotic force as depicted by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight and is often the common perception that is associated with the character of the Joker. Instead, Arthur Fleck’s Joker does evil for the sake of feeling power in a society that has rendered him and people like him utterly powerless.

This thought brings the theme of the film into the spotlight, as the movie is essentially a blatant warning sign to those who partake in society’s apathy. Those who are neglected by the world, whether it be socially or economically, are meant to be represented by the character of Arthur Fleck, who is essentially someone who has it worst. He is a mentally ill, brutally abused and psychologically scarred adopted orphan who completely lacks any companionship or direction in life due to his financial struggles in a city that completely disregards the poor and instead pays attention to the elite “1 percent”. Although blatantly exaggerated and very over the top in its delivery, the movie is intentionally making a topical statement on the current state of violence in America.

When being interviewed by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) on the Murray Show, Arthur Fleck delivers a line in full clown makeup through both tears and spites of anger when he rants about society’s ability to turn a blind eye towards those who are suffering when he says, “If it was me dying on the sidewalk, you would walk right over me!” This serves as a direct contrast to the previous statement Arthur Fleck makes in the film when speaking to his incompetent therapist when he confesses, “For my whole life, even I didn’t know if I really existed”. Both of these lines truly dig into the importance of the narrative that is being told, which is completely centered around the idea of apathy, and the idea that if you push people down hard enough and take away all the power they have, then eventually someone is going to push back.

With its problems aside, where Joker misses some of its marks in cinematic literacy and cohesiveness, it truly shines in the moments of sheer brilliance where this notion is put front and center. The climactic scene where Arthur Fleck gives a rage infused monologue before killing Murray Franklin on Live Television can be etched as an iconic moment moving forward, along with the Joker’s dancing descent down the now-infamous “Joker Steps”. Both of these moments are when Arthur Fleck finally feels the power, and this is the problematic nerve that many people feared the movie would strike in some of its audience members. The fact the film depicts Arthur Fleck as the protagonist could lead some to assume that his thirst for meaning and fight with feelings of powerlessness are potentially justified proves that a part of the film was not meant to give a moral direction or judgment on the character himself. Instead, I found that the film served as a blatant showcase of the worst possible scenario of how an apathetic society could churn out violent, revenge-fueled killers like the Joker that stands on the top of a police car in front of an adoring crowd of spectators and rioters. At this moment, Arthur Fleck finally found his audience that he had been searching for. He now feels as if he truly exists.

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Because of this arc, I found that when the credits began to roll and the movie came to a close, I was left with a gut-wrenching forewarning: Don’t be the person that stands aside as a member of a society that takes someone like Arthur Fleck and makes them snap, turning them into somebody like the Joker. This haunting message is not meant to solely invoke fear or act as a reminder for the reality of tragedies that do take place in our world. Instead, I would argue that the message of the film and the story that is told is meant to bring about a sense of pressure to make a change in the way that society oftentimes glosses over those who are hurting and marginalized. Instead of simply going about our lives and smiling, always trying to “put on a happy face” through all of the hardships that people experience at the hands of the world we benefit from, there is a pressing need for change.

For the moments of brilliance where this theme and story are at the spine of the film, I feel like Joker acts an outstanding success from both a narrative and cinematic standpoint, yet overall misdirection of the screenplay keeps it from being considered an overall masterpiece as many are proclaiming it as.

*Note: For my scale of grading films, I always give two separate ratings. The first answers the question “Was it good?”. This is meant to serve as a more objective rating, coming from a purely filmmaking/cinematic point of view that is used by almost all critics. The “Did you like it?” rating is completely subjective and is based on personal taste, along with the resonance that I felt with the story that was told. For example, Nacho Libre is a film that would get a “Was it Good?” rating of 3.5/10, but I would give it a “Did you like it?” rating of 9.5/10*

How Good is it?

8.25/10 (Objective)

Did you Like it?

9.5/10 (Subjective)

Amount of Times I got Goosebumps while watching the movie:

Six instances / moments