Slight spoiler alert, I reveal some details about the movie. Best to watch it first before reading on.
The 2019 movie “Joker” is available on Netflix and my review of it is long overdue. To say that this is a somewhat controversial movie would be an understatement. Reviewers seem highly polarized in their opinions. Roughly half the reviewers thought the movie absolutely sucked, while the other half thought it was a truly great movie. There were some who literally feared mass shootings, and there were some who praised the movie for addressing important issues related to how society deals with mental healthcare.
A few mental healthcare specialists have pointed out that Joker does not offer a realistic portrayal of mental disorders. Some even went so far as to write to newspapers to express their concern that the factual misrepresentation of mental disease in Joker might damage the public image of real people with psychiatric conditions. On the other end of the specutrum, we find specialists who reflect more favourably on the movie and who succesfully argue in a peer-reviewed journal that Joker actually does a pretty decent job of depicting traumatic brain injury.
Going beyond the fascinating—but otherwise irrelevant—factual accuracy of the movie’s portrayal of mental illness, one reviewer of Joker wrote that a movie must first of all be interesting. And in his opinion, Joker wasn’t. I think that’s a bit odd. Allright, Joker isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. That’s understandable. But considering the polarizing result, the mass media attention, the controversy surrounding Joker, it could certainly be argued that Joker is anything but uninteresting. Quite the contrary. Admittedly, much of the reason for that is the Oscar winning performance of Joaquin Phoenix. His version of Joker really steals the show. Perhaps that’s why the movie’s title is simply “Joker” and not “A Treatise on Social Injustice, Economic Inequality, and the Rise of the Commedia dell’Arte in pre-Chiropteran Gotham”.
Now about the movie itself. Right from the beginning, we see that Gotham is sick. The news playing on a radio in the background informs us that Gotham city is turning into one big rat-infested trash heap because of a long strike by garbage collectors. Arthur Fleck, a traumatized rent-a-clown, goes to work as a sign-spinner on a busy street in front of a store going out of business. He does so next to a porn movie theater bearing a sign saying that it’s “healthily air conditioned” inside. So this movie is not just about mental disorder, it’s about a whole city that is out of order. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s heavy melancholic cello music (also Oscar winning) is perfect. The mood is further enhanced by the cinematographer’s use of a green filter, casting a sickly hue in every shot. Frequent use of low aperture results in a tasty ‘bokeh’—or differential focus if you prefer—in some key scenes, creates a strong sense of introversion. To me it emphasized the narcistic, self-centered aspect of Arthur’s personality, as well as his sickness.
It’s hard to imagine this movie being as successful as it is with any other actor playing Joker than Joaquin Phoenix. His performance was simply amazing, the best I’ve seen in a Hollywood movie in quite a while, and in my view justly rewarded with an Oscar. The way he uses almost every muscle fiber and makes his bones stand out in his lanky sinewy body really works perfectly. He makes Arthur look broken, malnourished, bruised… The heavy smoking completes the image of sickness. In the opening scene, Arthur applies clown makeup and with his fingers pulls the corners of his mouth into a smile while a glistening tear runs over his cheek. That’s Arthur before he is Joker. He does it again after his transformation in the end. The movie has a certain symmetry.
Arthur’s main goal in life is to become a comedian. But as we follow him on his journey along that path, we soon realize how crazy that is. When Arthur visits a comedy club during amateur hour, seeking inspiration for his material, he writes weird notes such as ‘sexy jokes alwaze funny’ while laughing completely out of sync with the rest of the crowd. It suggests Arthur has no intuition of comedy. Instead he just copies jokes and behavior from other people as if they were recipes in a cookbook, to be served at the right time. Arthur’s ambition of becoming a comedian is so ill suited to someone with his mindset that it is a bit ironic. Like a person with a pathological lack of empathy for other people’s wellbeing desperately trying to become a grief counselor or nurse. Arthur even copies the moves for his entrance on the Murphy Show from a previous guest by watching a recording of the show. The stark contrast between the aspiring comedian, and the psychotic, halucinating, mentally unhinged trauma survivor works really well.
Arthur’s unusual collection of mental conditions, which is what some reviewers seems to find problematic or even controversial, is not the most important aspect of the movie. Instead, I feel the most relevant thing is more how his milieu reacts to his conditions. Arthur’s curious collection of mental problems may or may not be accurate, but it still lends itself perfectly well for a valid commentary on how modern society treats people with mental problems. Arthur’s lack of support from social workers, the way people react to him in public, his virtually non-existent treatment by specialist healthcare professionals, the outrageous cutbacks, ending his medication, social isolation, his lack of eductation, living in a badly maintained apartment building where he takes care of his mother and watches TV… It’s a desperate situation to be in. And there are elements that feel pretty close to real life. Inadequate funding for mental healthcare is a real issue in the Netherlands, for example, where it was recently reported that waiting lists to treat young people dealing with serious mental conditions can now be as long as two years. That waiting period even applies to young people asking for help to deal with suicidal depression. For some on that list, help comes too late…
But there is of course more to the Joker origin story than just the city’s socio-economic problems and the critique of mental healthcare in modern society. The connection between Arthur and Thomas Wayne is also explored, in an interesting way. And there is sort of a twist there too, which I won’t spoil here. But I don’t think there’s enough in this movie to warrant a sequel, despite the somewhat open ending. Then again, do we really need to see yet another Bruce Wayne turn into yet another Batman? I don’t think so. In that sense, Joker is certainly a refreshing change. Thus, the ending of this movie is good enough. Arthur is sitting at a table across an employee of the Arkham asylum. Arthur’s laughing, but it is perhaps the first time his laughter is not caused by the brain trauma. When the employee asks him what’s so funny, he replies “You wouldn’t get it.” It’s the perfect answer, coming from a man who never understood a joke in his entire life. I rate Joker 8/10.