REVIEW: ‘Joker’ takes center stage as essential psychological cinema

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a disturbed resident of Gotham City who will inevitably transform into the murderous Joker. Promotional artwork courtesy of Warner Brothers.

Centered around the titular character, Joker is a must-watch, haunting look into the psyche of the most recognizable villain in comic book history and his descent into madness while it comments on the ruthless nature of society. 

Directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck/Joker, the film follows Arthur Fleck, a failed comedian, who draws inspiration from his hero, the television talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro), suffers from numerous mental disorders who must also take care of his infirm mother. What starts as a sad and tragic story of a broken man trying to help his family get into a better situation, with hints of a better life in the future, evolves into an inevitable horror as Arthur thoroughly rejects the standards of society and takes control of his situation the way he sees most beneficial to himself and adopts the persona of the Joker.

Known for his work on the famous comedy series The Hangover and the comedy Borat, Phillips stepped into a realm of directing which he had never been accustomed to. Yet he manages to capture the identity of the Joker that will not only be satisfying to casual viewers but also to die hard comic book fans. The film takes no prisoners as it peppers Fleck’s slow but inevitable descent into madness with Easter egg-like references to other comic book films, graphic novels, and pop culture royalty. For instance, the scene with his head leaning against the window of a police car is a call back to the famous scene in The Dark Knight where Heath Ledger’s Joker sticks his head out of the window of a police car. Yet the film is primarily about the origin story of the Joker and doesn’t heavily derive inspiration from any single comic book/movie plot as there are only a few indications of Batman and the extended universe so viewers looking for a Batman movie will not be satisfied.

Joker is a once in a decade beautiful narrative that delves into the mind of the Joker while also fatefully depicting the ramifications of what happens when mental health issues are ignored and put aside.

Promotional artwork courtesy of Warner Brothers.

The way Arthur Fleck’s life is captured furthers Phillips’s genius in masterfully depicting a character’s emotions and thoughts with minimal verbal cues and facial features. Not many directors have the skills to do that without sacrificing an aspect of the character but not a single character trait of Arthur is lost. Thus, the audience will feel as if they know the character on a deep personal level and some may even relate to Arthur and his circumstances. The film makes the viewer feel dirty or even corrupted as they cannot rationally agree with Fleck’s actions but emotionally, they often side with Fleck.

Phoenix, to prepare for the film, lost 52 pounds so that he could better fit the role. The dedication Phoenix had to his role is evident and his weight loss is only a fraction of what made him great in this film. Phoenix captures the very essence of the Joker to a never before seen level, his acting managing to humanize a vile character to the point where some may empathize with the character’s actions. However, the apex of his acting in this film is in his portrayal of a person suffering from numerous mental health issues. Phoenix doesn’t exaggerate the conditions and their resulting symptoms but rather acts it with extreme realism. It feels so real that it can make the viewer uncomfortable just watching the character of Arthur go about his day to day business. 

Every actor plays their respective character to near perfection. Robert DeNiro’s portrayal of the talk show host Murray Franklin feels like a real life talk show host. Behind the scenes he is a serious man but when the cameras roll he adopts a larger than life persona just like real life personalities. Zazie Beetz’s role as Sophie Dummond, a single mother and the romantic interest of Arthur Fleck, plays brilliantly into the overall narrative of the film. Her acting contributes to the authentic feel of the world from the eyes of Arthur.

The little the film lacks is made up in spades by the stellar acting and directing.

The film tackles many real world philosophical questions such as the nature of politics and the ruthless system of capitalism but it most ardently criticizes the attitude society has towards mental health and its victims. The birth of the Joker is directly caused by lack of medical attention and lack of any proper facilities for an individual suffering from mental health disorders. If society had been more sensitive towards Arthur and his struggles he might have managed to live an ordinary life. Yet without the proper treatment and support system the Joker is only an inevitability which could happen to any one of us.

Joker is a once in a decade beautiful narrative that delves into the mind of the Joker while also fatefully depicting the ramifications of what happens when mental health issues are ignored and put aside.

Joker is rated R.

Anuraj Nair is a pop culture critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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