Joaquin Phoenix delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as Arthur “Joker” Fleck in this depiction of one of the most iconic villains in cinema history.
I’m not even sure where to begin with this film. As I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the film in its entirety, I can’t help but attach myself to vivid moments that stood out to me. Piece by piece, here are some things that stood out to me.
There are many moments and nuances that caught my attention. The first being the concept of laughter and pain. The number one character in the film, in my opinion, is smile. Todd Phillips is so brilliant in making the beginning and ending scenes so powerful. Arthur is literally crying while trying to put a smile on his face when applying his clown makeup. He uses red paint to paint a smile on his face that his mouth could not. by the end, he uses the blood from his mouth to recreate that same smile. By this moment, his emotions are very different. Everything in this movie is meant to be unsettling. I’ll get more into that later.
The start of the movie is obviously meant to make the audience empathize with Arthur– not the Joker. From being separated from everyone when he is in the locker room, to getting beat up and left in the alley. Even by this moment we realize the character, despite his unfortunate brutality, he is trying to make others happy. The idea that he is putting on a happy face to make others feel comfortable around him is a common theme within the film. Getting odd jobs where the money isn’t necessarily a factor, its about the enjoyment and satisfaction. He just wants to be acknowledged. Even taking care of his mother, his whole life is about caring for others. He even feeds off of this idea that his mother told him he was meant to bring joy and laughter to the world. It’s something he obviously wrestles with throughout the movie. Battling between the comedy and tragedy that is his life is the sole intimacy with Arthur.
Mental Illness, Politics and Therapy
The joker seemed to be making little to no progress in this therapy sessions. From the first session to the second, Arthur seemed to come to a better understanding of himself. Meanwhile, his therapist aid was still at step one.
The way the city of Gotham is portrayed is very political. Like the real world, there is more emphasis on boosting the privileged and beating down the underprivileged. When Arthur brutally murders the three guys on the subway, the media immediately thinks it was out of jealousy of their privilege. This was obviously not Arthur’s intention, but it is justifiable to the people who support them. The idea that we care more about the wealthy lives than the less fortunate.
Joker and Arthur living together
At many points in the film, we find Joker and Arthur living with one another. There’s even noticeably a difference in handwriting in his notebook. Almost as if one persona is more characteristic, more carefree, bold, stands out a lot more than the other.
We see many moments throughout the film where Arthur is slowly becoming the Joker. Take the refrigerator scene for example. Arthur is seen removing everything from the frig so he can climb in a shut the door. It’s symbolic to him going down a cold, dark, empty path. I think Arthur justifies this as himself living in a cold void as opposed to it being within him.
Empathy and Sympathy
I don’t think the point of the film was to empathize or feel sorry for someone like Arthur. Like many people unlike his situation, we don’t know what it’s like to have personality disorders.
We, as an audience, are not meant to understand Arthur. He is a character that is meant to be studied, not understood. His situation is not unique to the real world where society takes minor steps in understanding mental illness and ignoring the signs of clear and blatant struggle.
Laughter and pain
Arthur is known to have an condition of uncontrollable laughter in awkward or uncomfortable moments. There are many times where his laughter starts to become painful for him. When he gets into the situation between the child on the bus, or his encounter with Thomas Wayne, or realizing he is adopted, the laughter becomes an immediate reaction to his pain. It’s like Arthur wants to cry but there is something stuck, unwilling to let it out. Even his flamboyant dancing throughout the film is almost like a character trying to release itself. Somewhat of an insect’s new form emerging from an old shell.
The lies tying him to Arthur
Most of the events keeping Arthur from becoming the Joker are the thread of lies told to him. He’s living in a world where all he wants to do is fit in. He even imagines untrue events to feel a sense of normalcy, like the conjuring relationship between him and his neighbor. The last thing that gives Arthur hope is his revaluation that Thomas Wayne is his father. Unfortunately, his very mentally ill mother made up this story, forcing Thomas Wayne to reveal to Arthur that he was adopted.
While it seems that the revelation of him being adopted might be the most painful for him, it’s also the most releasing. At this point he has nothing attaching him to the character of Arthur. He can fully embrace The Joker.
Now let’s break it down: his mother is not really his mother, her lack of information and abuse led to his unhappiness, he no longer has a connection to Thomas Wayne, he has no connection to the workforce, he has nothing tying him to love as his romance life was just another figment of his imagination. The thing that took over that never existed before is his confidence. While he always had the dream to inspire and make people laugh, the Joker has given him to source of energy and courage to do it. Even at the unfortunate demise of others. He uses the experience he has as Arthur as the motivation for his humor going forward. There will always be that pain from his former self, but now he is able to actually laugh through it.
The Murray Show
A huge theme in the movie is his admiration towards the Murray show. We have an inkling that Arthur is going to off himself many times throughout when he is seen putting his fingers to head a blowing his brains out. Someone in his condition after being bullied, ridiculed and ostracized from humanity, would likely try to commit suicide. But again, this is a movie about the Joker.
Before Arthur gets to the Murray Show, it seems obvious that he might kill himself on live tv. When he finally gets into makeup and looks in the mirror, he is already fully the Joker. Arthur is gone at this point.
While Murray stands as a positive example in Arthur’s life, he becomes a lesson in the Joker’s. By killing Murray, he is killing the final thing that is chaining him to his former self. When he is on that stage as the Joker, it’s like Arthur has already died. When he is sitting on that stage its like he is advocating for a person that society killed. People are listening. They see him.
The “Dark Knight” Heath Ledger comparison
Joaquin Phoenix portraying the Joker in this film is unlike any other. No shade to the late and great Heath Ledger as the Joker in the Dark Knight. These two movies take place in completely different moments in the character’s life. This film isn’t an adaptation of Heath Ledger’s performance in Dark Knight as a more solidified version of who the Joker is. This film is an origin story that needs a deeper look into why he is.
Is the Joker a hero now?
This is not a movie about heroes and villains. There are two sides to this coin. The Joker is a story about a man who was dealt an unfortunate hand in life and made some bad decisions in result of it. Unlike the world we live in now. You have to understand that Arthur did not get to this point at the start of the movie. This has been his narrative throughout his entire life. The society that he lives in mirrors the society that he entered the world in: abandoned, lied to, and abused. Even the idea that his adopted mother made him believe his sole purpose in life is to bring joy to others, while giving the love back to this woman who never really gave it to him.
Again, there is no justification to the violent acts Arthur commits. The movie isn’t telling the audience to understand why he committed such heinous acts, but rather just be insightful to the reaction and impulsive decisions that stems from someone who is clearly unhealthy. These aren’t acts that seem justifiable because Arthur has a sense of joy when he is doing it.
My Final Thoughts
As themes stand out and messages arise, let’s remember this is a film. Also, the Joker is known to “joke”. Some might even state that this entire movie is a figment of his imagination. As it is known in the film, he isn’t reliable at giving concrete information. There are also moments that we under appreciate because we are so latched on to the seriousness of it. Like, when he drops the gun at the children’s hospital, or when he literally punches out of work. The most humorous was when he scares the little person running by and he cannot reach the lock on the door, and many other hilarious moments. There are also moments where he finds laughter comforting rather than painful. For example, when he jokes with the neighbor about robbing her. It was a light moment for Arthur that might’ve been fabricated but humanized him as a normal person. It isn’t until he starts to become the Joker that his laughter becomes sarcastic.
What I appreciated most about this film was the storytelling and backstory about the character. We were given nuance and substance about a character we just saw as the greatest crazy, sociopath villain of Batman. Now that I think about it, Arthur Fleck became Joker the same day Bruce Wayne became Batman. While there paths won’t cross for another 20 years or so, their desires to inspire and avenge what was taken from them is parallel. The fact that the movie made us believe Joker and Batman could’ve been brothers is just another symbolism that they have more in common than we think.
I know this was a lot to take it, but I also know I am missing a lot of themes and nuances. Like the Joker, I can get in my head way too much. Let me know what you all thought of the movie by commenting below.