Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers.
Joker is a movie I had been longing to watch ever since it was announced that Joaquin Phoenix would star in it as the Joker.
Phoenix is one of the best actors out there and has given some great performances as Commodus in Gladiator (2000) (Did you forget about that one? It’s been a while, I know), Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005), Freddie Quell in The Master (2012) and Theodore in Her (2013). In fact, Walk the Line and The Master earned him Oscar nominations for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role while Gladiator earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Perhaps his brilliant performance in Joker can finally give Phoenix his first Oscar win, because I think it’s about time.
Directed by Todd Phillips and written by Phillips and Scott Silver, Joker takes us to Gotham City in the early 1980s. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lonely man who is trying to make a living as a clown-for-hire but aspires to be a famous comedian, like his idol Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) whose TV show he fanatically watches with his mother (Frances Conroy).
Arthur has "a medical condition causing sudden, frequent, uncontrollable laughter that doesn’t match how you feel. It can happen in people with a brain injury or certain neurological conditions," as written on an informational card that he carries and shows to people near him when he has an episode. Physically, socially and verbally bullied by kids, drunk, wealthy guys, colleagues, and even his own idol, Franklin, Arthur wonders, “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” The meanness, rudeness, and loss of empathy in his society make Arthur reach a boiling point, and once that is done, there’s no way back.
The 1980s Gotham City of Phillips and Scott doesn’t seem too far off our own society in 2019. In an era of trolling, cyberbullying, social isolation and exclusion, Arthur Fleck could be any one of us. Even the scenes of violence and anarchy that finally dominate the streets of Gotham City resemble to some extent those currently circulating around the world media from Hong Kong, Lebanon and Chile.
With that said, it’s quite interesting that some people protesting in these places have been spotted with their faces painted as Joker, who some see as a symbol of resistance against power, social inequality, the “system,” the “elite society” and/or their governments.
The movie has been criticized for its potential to inspire violence, perhaps because the entire movie and thus the violence in it draw from real-world social issues.
However, I’d like to believe that people in their right mind would not get inspired to murder somebody because they watched Joker. In fact, such statements are not based on research evidence, according to the American Psychological Association, and “may distract society from more substantive causes of violence such as poverty, lack of treatment options for mental health ... and educational and employment disparities.” Such statements also completely miss the point that the movie is trying to make, precisely linking violence and crime with social and mental issues.
Movies have the power to promote ideas, perhaps violence too. But Joker does not try to do that. It does not justify violence nor by any means supports it. It just tries to make us understand what factors could possibly lead a man to such extreme violence. So, correlating understanding with justification is a fallacy here.
Every time you cringed with Arthur’s laughter, felt nervous with his awkwardness, felt sick with the bullying he received or gasped at his violent reactions, you understood what it’s like to be Arthur Fleck. I heard friends saying, “I cringed!” Yes, you cringed because Phillips and Scott wanted you to cringe and because Phoenix’s brilliant performance conveyed that feeling. That’s the success of the movie, not its failure.
Phillips and Scott also do a great job giving space for the character himself to justify his own acts of violence in the intense final scenes of the movie, just like they give space to the viewer to critically decide if they want to justify Arthur or not. That is another success of the movie: it allows the viewer both to understand what it’s like to be Arthur and eventually condemn his actions.
You can empathize with the exclusion and isolation that Arthur feels and the hatred that he receives and you can also condemn his violent acts. Even protesters in Joker masks are insufficient to equate the message of the movie with the promotion of violence, as such protesters have admitted they have identified with the symbol of resistance (not violent resistance) behind the character rather than the emotional nature of the character and its violent acts.
Even a month after its release, the Joker continued to occupy the top 2nd place at the domestic box office rankings based on its weekly domestic earnings, after remaining on the top of the rankings for roughly the first two weeks after its release. Internationally it has met great box office success, as well, boosting its worldwide gross earnings to $988.7 million so far. I believe it is well worth it.
Joker is not your typical superhero movie; it is a “stand-alone character study” as Jason Fraley from WTOP phrased it, and it draws on timeless social issues, such as social isolation and exclusion and mental health.
Now you may ask, “Is Joker supposed to teach about mental health and social exclusion?” No, the movie is not supposed to be educational in that way, but it may spark a conversation around these issues (I know it did for me and my friend group). That alone, I think, is beneficial, remarkable and fascinating; that a movie focusing on a superhero villain can lead to constructive dialogue on complex social issues.
Phoenix’s elaborate Joker should not be compared to that of Heath Ledger, because he is unique in his own way. In fact, I’m really excited to see if and how Phoenix’s Joker can be incorporated in a future classic superhero Batman film.
Joker may not be a movie for everyone, but if you haven’t watched it, consider giving it a try. If you have watched it, I hope you consider the perspective I offer. Stay tuned because I have a feeling we will be discussing Phoenix’s engrossing performance once Oscar season comes.
IMDb rating: 8.8/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 69% (critic), 89% (audience)
My personal rating: 7/10
Contact contributor Myrsini Manou-Georgila at firstname.lastname@example.org.