Joaquin Phoenix Stuns as “Joker”; Film’s Messages Fall Flat

Naima Masiki

The Joker is one of those movies that still has you locked in an amazed trance as you’re walking out of the theater and driving back home.  The beautiful cinematography and the award-deserving acting take the credit for the mesmerizing feeling. However, when I thought about the film in more depth, I realized the cinematography and acting are some of the only elements that make it worth watching. 

This 2019 movie tells the origin story of Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill man who desires to become a comedian. By day, he works as a clown in a rapidly-deteriorating Gotham City. By night, he tends to get harassed and persecuted by the Gotham City elite.  This isolation and mistreatment eventually lead to the deterioration of his mental health, and cause him to spiral into violent insanity.

Todd Philips directed this dark origin story of the iconic comic book villain, the Joker. However, he is more well-versed in comedy, and it shows in terms of the type of humor used.  For such a sinister feel during the movie, he uses almost slapstick comedy for comic relief. One instance of this is when Arthur is delivering his big speech outside of the hospital where he is on his way to murder his mother.  He’s walking into the hospital. The music is swelling. The tension is building. And then… he walks head-on into a glass door. It just takes away from the tone of the film; I feel like wittier ironic jokes could have been used to bring laughter instead of going with the outplayed physical injury route. 

On the other hand, the clumsiness does give you some sympathy for the villain at the beginning of the movie.  When we first meet Arthur, he would be described as an awkward, lonely, mistreated man who still lives with his mother suffering from mental illnesses.  We want him to get revenge on those who wronged him. The movie succeeded in having me root for Arthur in the beginning, but by the end there lacked any reasons for sympathy.  He was gaining confidence and power with every kill he made, and by then he was just another murderer causing chaos just to cause chaos.  

However, he made some crucial points during the movie.  “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?  You get what you f**king deserve!,” is the famous punchline he delivers seconds before shooting talk show host Murray in the head.  The role of mental illness in acts of mass violence is a common topic of contemporary debate. With the majority of Republicans calling for mental health reforms, and many Democrats seeking stricter gun control on top of mental health reforms, the relevance of the movie’s conflict is apparent. However, with everything being so debated and divided everywhere you turn, it would be nice to just relax and watch a superhero movie without trying to dissect the political undertones in it too.

Beyond the political references, there are some really great aspects of the movie.  Joaquin Phoenix’s acting, for one, is phenomenal. He completely succeeds in showing what a creepy, disturbing character Arthur Fleck is. The way he walks around his apartment hunched over with every single bone protruding from his body keeps your eyes glued to the screen when all you really want to do is cringe and look away. 

This effect is also due to the cinematography done by Lawrence Sher. He captures the feeling of every scene with an array of slow, fluid pans, hypnotic tilts, and balanced, authentic lighting; the restroom scene being the most memorable. And the fact that the mesmerizing, unprecedented dance in the dirty bathroom after he killed the three men on the subway was completely improvised by Joaquin Phoenix brings a much better fit to the character by showing how he chooses to embrace this murderous side of himself instead of hiding it.  This is his first step to becoming The Joker. After this, as I have already mentioned, the viewer commends his campaign for revenge, but that feeling is lost after so much unnecessary lawlessness and chaos arise.

My final stance on The Joker is that it deserves awards for its entrancing acting and dark, seductive cinematics, but it could have better connected with the audience if it hadn’t used as much purposeless violence, cheap humor, and political messages.