Controversial for the wrong reasons

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck
Supplied by Warner Brothers

Review by Austin Nitschke

Between the choice of title and the amount of on-screen laughter, one might mistake Todd Phillips’ latest film for another of his adult comedies.

However, Joker marks a serious departure for Phillips from past films such as Road Trip, Old School, and the Hangover Trilogy. While the Joker may not be another of the director’s R-rated comedies, the film’s disturbing subject matter does call for an equally mature audience. Set in the year 1981, the film takes place in the fictional metropolis that is Gotham, and it tells the origin story of Batman’s greatest nemesis with a dark spin.

Joker final trailer

From the initial screening of Joker at the Venice Film Festival back on September 7, the film has been marred with controversy, ranging from accusations that it stigmatizes those who suffer from mental illness, to the fear that the movie will resonate with ‘involuntary celibates’ (incels) and even inspire some within their dejected and deeply misogynistic online community to commit mass shootings.

So justified was the concern in the eyes of the U.S. military that they issued a warning to its members prior to the film’s release in theatres, telling them to be on alert and providing tips on how to respond to a mass shooting situation.

Further controversy arose as a result of Todd Phillips’ bizarre explanation, just days prior to the film’s worldwide release, on why he no longer directs comedy movies. The director claimed (although with a stronger choice of words) that it is impossible to make a comedy these days because of audience sensitivity. Phillips’ statement is ironic when considering Joker has sparked arguably more controversy than any of his prior films.

Nonetheless, the movie offers a refreshing take on the Joker character, while diverging quite a bit from the canon universe of DC Comics. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is portrayed as a mentally ill loner suffering from pseudobulbar affect, a brain condition that has him bursting into involuntary fits of laughter at inappropriate times–as is the case when he experiences feelings of embarrassment, nervousness, and sadness in the film.

Joaquin Phoenix as Joker
Supplied by Warner Brothers

Fleck is an aspiring comedian who, during the day, works as a clown for hire and, when he’s not working, takes care of his ailing mother Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy), with whom he also resides.

In tackling the backstory of the Joker, the film is in a sense entering uncharted territory; no information is provided on the Joker’s real identity in the comics (or the identities of either of his parents), and neither has it ever been proposed that the Joker’s trademark laughter may be a result of a neurological condition. Still, the attempt to humanize the Joker by introducing some depth to the character allows audience members to see the Joker character in a new light, and it was something I was able to appreciate.

The transformation of Arthur Fleck into the Joker is accompanied by a haunting musical score composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir, who also composed the second entry in the Sicario movie franchise.

One does notice that Joaquin Phoenix, as Arthur Fleck and later as the Joker, spends a lot of his time on screen laughing, smoking, and dancing–there are over six minutes of Phoenix dancing, spread over approximately a dozen scenes in the nearly two hours of runtime. Phoenix’s transition from Arthur Fleck to the Joker feels rapid, and most of the violence in the film occurs in short explosive bursts that catch the audience off guard, and leaves them in a state of unease.

Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin
Supplied by Warner Brothers

Robert De Niro also appears in the film, playing a late-night television host, and idol of Arthur’s, Murray Franklin; Phoenix makes an appearance on De Niro’s late-night show during the course of the plot.  

To be clear, painting Phoenix’s character as some kind of champion of inceldom – as some outlets have – grossly mis-characterizes members within the incel community: few in the community are violent and even fewer go on to commit mass shootings. Some, who self-identify as incels, have been vocal online about this misrepresentation, citing the comparison as an example of how misunderstood the incel community is by the general public.

Indeed, Arthur Fleck’s romantic life (or lack thereof) is not a primary motivation for his descent into the Joker, and to suggest otherwise would be stretching the plot.

While one does get the sense that Joker contains an overarching political message, it remains difficult to flesh out, being muddled beneath themes of mental illness, gun control, and social alienation. To a number of residents of Gotham, Joaquin Phoenix’s character Arthur Fleck is an avenger of the common people. As such, the movie can be viewed as a criticism of a system that mainly serves the rich and powerful, while leaving everyone else behind. And while it is difficult not to feel sympathetic for Arthur Fleck in the beginning, by the time the movie concludes all remaining sympathy one had for the character has been thoroughly spent.

Joaquin Phoenix as Joker
Supplied by Warner Brothers

Joaquin Phoenix gives an eerie performance as Arthur Fleck: the way he is able to go from hysterical laughter to vacant expression in an instant is almost discomforting. Leigh Gill, who appeared on a few episodes in season seven of HBO’s Game of Thrones, gives a convincing performance in a scene alongside Phoenix; Gill’s terror is felt from the other side of the screen­, and it had me holding my breath.

Some might accuse the film of skimping on special effects, but the substance of the film does not necessitate it hiding behind explosions and staging elaborate stunts to keep the attention of the audience. This is a film focused on telling a story and that is what it does – effectively.

Phoenix’s performance in the film cannot be understated, and the intensity of emotion he puts into the character is worth applauding. With that being said, I find myself withholding my full endorsement of the film, as even though Phoenix’s character may be portrayed as a victim in the movie, the real victims of the film are those who suffer from mental illness.

Unfortunately, Joker is guilty of what so many Hollywood films are guilty of: stigmatizing mental illness through their depiction of the mentally ill as unpredictable, dangerous, and violent.