Joker: No Laughing Matter
October 15, 2019
Joker, directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix as the titular character, presents an alternate backstory to the quintessential DC Comics villain, telling the story of a mentally-ill man named Arthur Fleck who struggles to survive in a city overrun by corrupt public officials. The movie was released on October 4th in the United States but was preceded by an early screening at the Vienna International Film Festival, where it won the Golden Lion award. Walking into this movie, I was not expecting to enjoy it. The trailer looked eerie and depressing. Reports of police going undercover in movie theaters to prevent potential violence caused by this movie didn’t comfort me in the slightest. And surely enough, when I went to see the movie on Saturday, there were four cop cars parked at the theater. Yikes.
The movie starts out slow and bleak. The audience is introduced to Fleck’s debilitating mental illnesses—besides a shaky moral conscience, he has Pseudobulbar Affect (PBA) and laughs uncontrollably at inopportune times. After a shocking incident on a subway train, Arthur experiences his first taste of power, and things take a turn from there. The movie has a really cool way of portraying Arthur’s mental state—whenever he gets angry, anxious, or excited, loud rhythmic music pounds against your ear. Not only does it build up tension, but you get a clear idea about how the character is feeling, as if you were inside his head. In addition, the movie explores the idea of Fleck being an unreliable narrator: there are parts in the movie where you realize after a scene that you were watching a fantasy. It kind of makes you wonder whether the entire movie was all an elaborate dream in Fleck’s head.
Did I mention the movie was Rated R? I watched this movie with one hand over my eyes and one over my mouth. The violence in this film is taken onto a whole other level. Maybe I’m too used to watching Marvel movies where the worst thing to happen is a computer generated alien getting an axe to the chest, with no blood or gore, but the Joker movie is really heavy on violence. A guy gets stabbed in the eye and throat with a pair of scissors and his head is repeatedly bashed against a wall. Even when I shut my eyes, the sound effects of mashed brains and screaming still got to me. Looking back, I have no idea how the twelve year old kid and his mom sitting next to me made it through the movie without a sound. When the credits started rolling, I bolted out of the theater. No end credits scenes for me—I was done. It wasn’t until I had walked out of the theater that I felt the cold sweat breaking across my body.
Is the movie enjoyable? No, and personally, I don’t see how it could be enjoyable to anyone by the very definition of the word: something being pleasant or entertaining to watch. The movie isn’t pleasing to the eyes in terms of visuals or action sequences—the whole film is shot in a bleary, rotting town. The action is heavy in gore and violence. The best thing you see in the whole movie is a fancy bathroom in a theater for upper class folks, but even that gets ruined by hostile character interactions. Even Joker’s grand entrance near the end of the movie doesn’t feel welcome—you get a sick feeling in your stomach that something bad is going to happen. Joker isn’t bad per se—it’s masterfully filmed and uses different styles of music and camera shots to portray a character’s emotional state. It won the Golden Lion award for a reason. But the movie isn’t enjoyable to watch.
Critics have called the movie potentially dangerous, pointing out that it humanizes mass shooters and terrorists and could inspire mentally-ill people to commit violent crimes. Call me insensitive, but I lost all sympathy for Fleck after his first violent act. I don’t think most people will identify with the Joker, because it’s pretty obvious to a mentally healthy person that you shouldn’t shoot people on live TV or stab people with scissors. There are parts of the movie that sort of “glorify” the Joker’s anarchy by playing heroic, grand music during scenes of chaos and violence, but I don’t think the movie’s advocating that type of behavior to be okay. The music illustrates that the anarchy feels grand to Arthur Fleck. As the audience, you’re supposed to feel disgust, and I feel the movie accomplished that.
You can’t talk about the Joker movie without bringing up all the other Jokers. I haven’t seen every single version put to film, but I think Phoenix’s Joker is very different from the rest in that he doesn’t have a Batman to fight. He’s on his own and he’s telling the story, and in terms of acting, Phoenix did an amazing job. In terms of enjoyability, I’d rate this movie a 1 out of 5, but in terms of production quality and effort, Joker deserves a solid 5 for its amazing camera work, soundtrack, and cast of actors.