This was such an unexpected and rattling disappointment.
I hated this film; I hated that it was so dishonest, manipulative and reckless in the depiction of some truly heinous and brutal themes, I hated that it was so convinced of its own artistry that it didn’t bother with an interesting or unique story, I hated that the almost universally adored performance by Joaquin Phoenix was completely without subtlety or nuance, I hated that the film completely misrepresented the character of the Joker, but most of all, I hated that the Joker himself, one of the most famous and sinfully evil villains in film and literature, was portrayed as mentally ill for no discernible reason and the heinous acts that he commits nothing more than a manifestation of his condition.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a mistreated and emaciated party clown with a neurological condition where he laughs uncontrollably at unexpected moments and visits his social worker weekly to top up his multitude of different medications. He lives with his elderly mother Penny (Frances Conroy) in Gotham city, which is rife with poverty, crime and corruption, and after getting beaten up by some street thugs, Arthur is given a gun to protect himself. After getting attacked by some frat boy financiers from the evil Wayne Industries, Fleck shoots them, becomes an overnight symbol for the poor and oppressed and the rest of the film is Fleck finding a sense of identity and purpose in murder and claiming revenge against a world which has abandoned him.
Phoenix, who is an admirable actor in his own right, has fallen right into the trap of portraying someone with a mental illness and thinking that its a free pass to acting as insane as possible without any subtlety or actually developing the character. There is no arc to Arthur throughout the film, he is as one noted and heavy handed in the first five minutes as he is in the last frame and its a shame because with some proper direction he could have done something extraordinary. Phoenix lost a ridiculous amount of weight for this film, as evidenced by the countless scenes in which Fleck is seen shirtless for literally no reason, but a physical transformation is nothing without a consistent and polished performance. Each scene seems like an individual audition piece rather than a coherent understanding of the actual character and the desperation to convey something to rival Heath Ledger is palpable. It doesn’t help that the script sounds like it was written by a film student and treats the audience like complete idiots with a paint by numbers plot, and rams clunky symbolism and unashamedly stupid lines like “I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realise, it’s a f**king comedy” down our throats. Admittedly the cinematography at times is quite well done and the score is quite moving at times, but it wasn’t nearly enough to distract me from what really was such an amateur production.
It was so infuriating watching the smugness in which director Todd Phillips shot every frame; it’s obvious that he thinks he’s the next Martin Scorcese or Thomas Christian Anderson but he doesn’t even come close. Phillips is one of the filmmakers who believes that if they depict gratuitous violence, mental illness or suicide then they will be considered revolutionary, edgy and artistic for having the courage to talk about what other filmmakers are too afraid to. It’s a childish, lazy and self righteous approach, and “Joker” is dripping it. Fleck has a mental illness, but it’s never explained what is is he has or even bothers to properly explore how it affects him, instead he’s just constantly referred to as “mentally ill”. What was the most maddening thing was that there was literally no reason for him to have been depicted as mentally ill at all! The Joker is a villain; he’s evil and that’s just part of his character, and what Heath Ledger’s Joker nailed in “The Dark Knight” was that there was no logic to his wickedness, he just relished in chaos and “seeing the world burn”. He doesn’t want Batman to die because he’s is more about causing mayhem than actually working towards an end goal, money, or for such mediocre pursuits as revenge. Anarchy is what defines Ledger’s Joker, mental illness is what defined Phoenix’s.
I was diagnosed with Depression in 2013, and still take medication for it today. I don’t have a problem with the portrayal of mental illness on screen, I don’t have a problem with bad people being portrayed as having a mental illness. What I did have a problem with was the Joker being depicted as mentally ill when there was no necessity for it to be included in the plot at all and when all the moments of victory or clarity for the Joker are when he acts upon the destructive nature of this undisclosed mental illness. The sole purpose of the Joker being written as mentally ill in this film was so that Todd Phillips could sell the film as something provocative and to stoke his own artistic ego. It’s pure exploitation and when the final frame of Fleck dancing like a rocker faded away, I felt palpably angry.
By Jock Lehman