Joaquin Phoenix shines, but Joker’s fractured themes will temper national controversy

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

By Sammie Purcell
BU News Service

“Joker” was surrounded by controversy before it even hit theaters, but the film’s inconsistent storytelling challenges the hype.

Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker has neither ideology nor politics. His sole motivation is to be noticed and to punish those who ignore him. Gotham assigns meaning to the character’s actions before he has a chance to do it himself, much in the same way the internet assigned meaning to this film before most people even set foot in the theater. 

When “Joker” first premiered at the 76th Venice International Film Festival in August, it was an instant darling, receiving an 8-minute standing ovation and winning the Golden Lion, the highest prize of the festival. Most of the excitement seemed to center around Phoenix’s gripping, disturbing turn as The Clown Prince of Darkness, almost certainly cementing a run for Best Actor at the Oscars.

Between festival season and the film’s theatrical release on Oct. 4, the positive energy around the movie transformed into something else entirely. When the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, it earned mixed reviews and sparked a conversation about art’s ability to incite violence, fanning into a flame that became a widespread panic.

Before its theatrical release, the media and internet created such a storm of takes about a supposedly pro-incel message that many people seized them as their own without actually having seen the movie. 

On Sept. 23, the U.S. Army Base at Fort Sill, Oklahoma sent out a memo warning of a possible mass shooting during the film’s opening weekend, although no specific theater was named. On the same day, family members of victims of the Aurora theater shooting, which occurred during a showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” in 2012, sent an open letter to Warner Bros’ chief executive expressing concern over themes in the film. Many police departments began announcing that extra security measures would be in place for the film’s opening weekend.  

But did the panic have merit? In today’s cultural climate, it’s meaningful to have conversations regarding the way art, particularly art with potentially harmful messages, could translate in the real world. Nowadays, news about mass shootings and violence have become ubiquitous. It’s understandable that people may not want to engage with a film that promotes sympathy for a thoroughly evil person and attempts to draw the conclusion that mental illness is behind his terrible acts. 

However, it’s also reasonable to ask people to see the film before making judgments on its ability to create controversy. 

The plot centers around pre-Joker Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill, aspiring comedian with a condition that causes him to burst into uncomfortable and hysterical laughter even when he doesn’t feel like it. Throughout the course of the film, he is ridiculed, beaten and forgotten about, pushed further and further into isolation until he snaps. His simmering rage at the world he believes wronged him provokes a violent movement against Gotham’s ostentatious upper class.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Director Todd Phillips’ (“The Hangover”) depraved take on the classic Batman villain is not cohesive enough, though whether it’s by accident or choice it’s hard to tell. The story points to a myriad of themes to try and explore Fleck’s character. At some points, it seems to be about the perils of stigma surrounding mental health. Then, it turns into a commentary on class issues and income inequality. It very slightly explores the beginning of the complicated relationship between the Joker and Batman. And it often tries to explore both sides of an issue, but it doesn’t delve deep enough into any of them to leave the audience with a clear message or warrant the media hype. Despite critics claiming the central message of the movie was to incite violence, in reality, the film lacks a central message in the first place. 

By approaching the story this way, the film pulls the audience in different directions. Fleck is often beaten up or ridiculed for no reason, and seems to only exist for the sick entertainment of others. At times, the audience is made to feel sorry for the deranged, homicidal clown who blames his shortcomings on the world around him, and it’s valid to be unnerved by that. For example, the film opens with a group of teens punching and beating Fleck while he lies in the fetal position in a dark alley after he chases them for stealing his sign.

There are also many instances where the anger directed at him is deserved. He brings a gun with him while visiting a children’s ward at a hospital which cost him his job. Later in the film, Fleck approaches a young Bruce Wayne in a true “stranger danger” moment and is confused when the boy’s bodyguard is upset. He has little sense of what human interaction should be like, and acts like it’s the rest of the world’s fault when that’s pointed out to him.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Phoenix’s performance is without a doubt the strongest and most entrancing thing about the film. He is physical, grotesque and strangely captivating. He reportedly dropped 52 pounds for the role, showing in the protruding bones of his back and ribs. In haunting, beautifully shot sequences, he dances in a sinewy, almost snakelike way, putting his grotesqueness on display and delighting in it.

The performance is built on contradictions. Phoenix’s portrayal of Fleck is quiet, mild-mannered – but not without a glimpse of the hysteria waiting beneath the surface. Due to his condition, when he laughs he is also at times on the verge of tears. Even in his most sympathetic moments, there is a glint of evil in his eyes. Phoenix strongly portrays a villain in the making – an already broken person hitting their next breaking point.  

The third act, the most exhilarating part of the film, follows Fleck through his last moments before he truly becomes the Joker. Everything about it fills you with a sense of dread, from the throbbing, disquieting score, to the magnetic exchange between Fleck and late night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). But even the most engrossing part of the film is filled with uneven choices. The dread-inducing score breaks into a rock song at one point – a jarring choice that cuts between foreboding and triumphant in equal parts.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Phoenix’s performance and the majority of the movie are entertaining, but the film’s fractured nature will likely do away with the controversy. The movie throws every theme it can drum up at the audience, letting them take away what they will. And much like the Joker himself, the movie doesn’t seem to hold any beliefs or politics – it lets its audience assign the narrative instead of doing it itself.

Conflict is central to “Joker’s” raison d’être. The film wants to make a splash, to spark conversation, to be edgy. Considering the public’s reaction and the whopping $96 million the film made domestically and $151 million overseas during its opening weekend, it’s certainly made an impact.

The firestorm that sprung from the internet has seemingly died down. As more people have actually seen the movie, “Joker” could serve as a perfect example of why viral internet takes are often more extreme than the art they are critiquing. 

1 Comment

  • —At some points, it seems to be about the perils of stigma surrounding mental health.

    At some point you were taught there is a stigma to mental health. Do you recall when?

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