Review: "Joker" looks mental illness in the eye and smiles

By DANIEL GUY
Posted 10/4/19

I walked out of the 4 p.m. matinee of “Joker” on Thursday evening surprised to find that there was a police presence in the lobby of my local theater. They weren’t there because of a crowd …

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Review: "Joker" looks mental illness in the eye and smiles

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I walked out of the 4 p.m. matinee of “Joker” on Thursday evening surprised to find that there was a police presence in the lobby of my local theater. They weren’t there because of a crowd — there were only about 10 of us in the very first screening late in the afternoon — and they weren’t there because someone had caused a scene in the theater over concession prices: They were there because a film with the Joker in it was premiering.

One can’t attend a film centered on the Joker and not think back to the awful 2012 Aurora theater shooting. The tragedy, where 12 people were killed, happened at the premiere of a Batman film, “The Dark Knight Rises,” and the shooter reportedly told authorities that he believed that he was “the Joker.”

Seeing armed law enforcement for the first time in a theater simply because of a film being screened was jarring, but if anything it only reinforced to me what Todd Phillips’ “Joker” is about: “Joker” is the portrayal of Arthur Fleck, a man who has dealt with mental illness all his life and wants nothing more than to bring laughter and smiles to the world. He has been abused, neglected, ignored, pushed aside, made to feel unnecessary and shoved to the brink of insanity. And then he dives over the edge.

River Phoenix’s performance is 90% of what makes this film work. He is in nearly every scene, including the flashback scenes — even though chronologically he wasn’t actually there when the events were happening. 

Phoenix’s brilliant physical performance mirroring the psychological machinations of the mind is a sight to behold. 

In one particular scene, Phoenix is tightening his clown shoes, and it looks as if his Joker persona is going to rip right through his skin and emerge violently, fully formed, birthed into a world that neither cares nor knows that he exists.

I can’t help but think that this film owes a debt to, and may not have existed without, Heath Ledger’s legendary Oscar-winning performance in 2008’s “The Dark Knight.” Much like the 1989 Tim Burton “Batman” introduced the world to the “grim and gritty” superhero, Ledger’s turn as the “Clown Prince of Crime” in “The Dark Knight” sent the public’s interest in the Joker into the stratosphere.

This origin story — whether it is ever fully considered the origin for the Joker — is at least the first fully formed shot at nailing down an explanation of the force of nature that he is.

I feel like director Todd Phillips leaned on the Occupy Wall Street movement as an influence for the protests and riots in Gotham throughout the last third of the film. Following the Joker’s murders on the subway, the protesters even adopt a clown mask — harkening back to the Occupy protesters appropriation of the V mask from DC/Vertigo’s “V for Vendetta” graphic novel.

The city of Gotham is the obvious co-star to Phoenix in “Joker.” Gotham is in the middle of a sanitation worker strike, in some unspecific time in the past. 

The city has an unshakable Martin Scorsese/New York vibe to it, and the city is so tangible on screen you can almost smell it.

The director goes out of his way — more than once — straight out of the Joker’s mouth, to say that his actions (and by proxy, the message of the director) is not political. However, the cutting of “social services” funding, like the funding that provided Arthur his 7-plus medications and therapy visits, was very much a political statement, albeit one that can be understood to be imploring both sides of the political aisle to listen.

Some comic book purists may have issues with the portrayal of Thomas Wayne in the film. He even seems to be eyeing a run at Mayor of Gotham in the film, which I can’t remember being a plot point in any Batman origin I’ve ever read. But he has a air of pretentiousness to him that isn’t usually indicative of typical, lionized portrayals of Mr. Wayne.

The obligatory scene to tie this origin story to another more famous Gotham resident, I feel, was both telegraphed and unnecessary. It was one of the only things that felt forced and “superhero” about this film.

“Joker” seeks to de-mystify a nearly 80-year-old character’s origin by untangling the treacherous roots that mental illness have in society today. “Joker” can be criticized for its portrayal of gun violence, but ultimately what makes “Joker” a dangerous but relevant film is the potential time-bomb dwelling within those who are ignored or who go without treatment for the mental illness that ails them. What happens when that person finds solace in taking control by whatever means they can?

If you’re interested in a similarly themed film, check out 2004’s “The Machinist” starring Christian Bale. The soundtrack to “The Machinist” is especially unnerving.

I give this film eight slices of pizza out of 10.

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