By Alice Moylett Davies
No spoilers really – we all know the ending anyway
The highly anticipated release of Joker, the film depicting the origin of Batman’s anti-hero, finally hit cinemas last Friday (4th October). Audiences had had their expectations raised and crushed in the run up to its release into the mainstream media after it won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival but was then slated by a second round of criticism. The film is centred around the life of Arthur Fleck, a man living an unlaughable life as a clown-for-hire and follows the events that turn him into – or perhaps reveal him to be – the Joker. It is of course set in Gotham City where the ‘rich are rich and the poor are poor’ [Mark Kermode], at a time where the city is on strike causing rioting and it is this off-kilter society that is reflected in and then encouraged by Arthur Fleck’s ‘descent into completely self-absorbed narcissistic rage’ [Mark Kermode].
Some critics were sceptical of director and co-writer Todd Phillips, who is widely known for his comedies such as the Hangover Trilogy, but Phillips has been able to enrich his skill for comedy by placing it in a dark, disturbing, psychological thriller. This film is ‘sad, brutal, serious and genuinely funny’ [The Week] and it is the disturbing, which makes the comic relief so powerful. It is reported that Phillips wrote alongside a photograph of Joaquin (wha-keen) Phoenix, who certainly proved his commitment to the role by shedding a visible 20kg, a real life symptom of the anti-depressant medication prescribed to Fleck.
Some critics and audiences alike were also hesitant about the creation of a new Joker persona after the character was seemingly defined by Heath Ledger’s role in the Dark Knight series. Mark Kermode again, ‘after Heath Ledger’s performance I thought no one needs to do the Joker again… I was wrong’ and I agree. It is not that Phoenix outplays Ledger at all, but more that his role is detached from the later portrayal of the Joker as the bad guy in Batman. This film is set in a context in which Batman does not yet exist, it is ‘a tale of desperation and decay; of a cruel, cruel world that creates an even crueller man’ [Ben Child, The Guardian], rather than an exciting, action-packed superhero.
The film has received a wide variety of responses from critics and audiences alike, some describing it as a masterpiece and others seeing it as irresponsible and provocative. The reason for this is likely the highlighting of Fleck’s ongoing mental health issues, a sensitive and personal topic and therefore often polarising. Fleck’s unpredictable and worsening behaviour is characteristic of trauma and though diagnosed, is untreated and becomes extreme. Some viewers have left cinemas with conflicted feelings, torn between being disturbed by his violent actions but innately understanding of the impact of uncontrollable factors. Kermode suggests that what we feel is not sympathy but pity, for we might understand the isolation and oppression developed by an unfair society and feel empathy for Fleck, that he was too vulnerable to stand against it. Which is then somewhat obliterated when he is taken ‘to such jagged, curled depths of inhumanity’ [Ben Child]. It is understandable that some viewers describe the film as irresponsible and I think it is important to point out that it may very well be triggering for some audiences, not so much in terms of visual scenes, but in the way it is told from Fleck’s perspective and therefore submerges the viewer into the psyche of a very disturbed, unwell man. The emphasis on mental ill-health in the film is arguably a risk, Robbie Collin discusses the ‘blood-curling glamour’, touching on the way in which cinema and media can glamourize and romanticise unhealthy behaviour, which is much uglier in reality. I don’t believe that this film is particularly irresponsible, it goes nowhere near the skewed gratification that 13 Reasons Why depicted. What audiences may feel instead is a natural intrigue and attraction to the complexity of Fleck’s character and the way in which he becomes so delusional and detached from reality that he, in some ways, exercises a freedom that we simply cannot and would not. He quite literally is able to escape the interest of the Police but is also able to act directly from the orders of his ego and I don’t see our desire for that as harmful as we all have a stronger sense of self and awareness of others that the Joker lacks entirely.
Overall, Joker is dark and it is disturbing but it is not horrifying, it won’t keep you awake at night. It is framed perfectly and Phoenix executes the role with the help of a highly creative and talented costume and makeup team, and our response to the visuals are certainly reinforced by the carefully considered soundtrack. Look out for Phoenix’s use of dance to physically and outwardly express his internal state as well the way he changes his appearance as he finally embodies the character of Joker. Whether for positive reasons or not it this film is a must-see as it seems it will be a conversation topic for a while.