Be warned, Joker is no laughing matter. The brutally honest truth of the matter is that I am horrified. Through every moment of the film and each subsequent second since I walked out of the Apollo Theatre, a deep discomfort has pervaded my mind.
To say that Todd Phillips’ 2019 psychological thriller Joker is a departure from conventional comic book movies would be an understatement. I’ve felt this shock before, with James Mangold’s 2017 Logan, which was a breath of fresh, unnervingly profane air. The film was rich in great character moments to supplement the enjoyable superhero beats. Yet, Joker does something far more impressive — blurring the conventional lines that define the genre of comic book films.
Joker follows the story of protagonist Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix. Fleck struggles with poverty and psychological instability while simultaneously trying to launch his stand-up comedy career. An increasingly unstable Gotham unfolds in the background, where class tensions threaten the city’s fragile social fabric. The film addresses false idolism — through Fleck’s reverence of Robert De Niro’s Murray Franklin, a late night talk show host — as well as political symbolism, and unreliable truth.
Joker is dedicated to creating and exploring a character defined by his moral ambiguity, and as a character sketch, the film is incredible. Fleck’s conflicts throughout the film are compellingly told and definitely believable, but by no means relatable. This distinction is important because a character like the Joker, who is defined by chaos, shouldn’t be relatable to a mainstream audience.
What is indeed exceptional about the film’s storytelling is that it unfolds both inside Fleck’s mind and on the streets of Gotham, pairing the two. As Fleck’s psychology, morality, and desires manifest themselves in his behavior, we observe the politics and anxieties of Gotham straining under purposeless chaos. Although Fleck and Gotham are in conflict, both are characterized through the metaphor of a gun as a tool of both violence and agency.
A huge credit must be given to the screenwriters, Todd Phillips and Scott Silver, who focus on the development of cultural symbols and their inevitable politicization. Neither Phillips nor Silver have any significant writing credits under their belts, a factor that especially accentuates the achievement that is Joker.
The problematic nature of this film is its failure to condemn Joker’s actions, leaving the audience with an ambiguous interpretation of Joker’s ill-doing. By the very nature of a villainous protagonist, the audience is exposed to objectively problematic themes, such as stalking, gun violence, toxic masculinity, and domestic abuse. However, the lack of any moral commentary makes the intended political perspective ambiguous. While it is enjoyable to watch the Joker from the audience, it is difficult to genuinely sympathize with him.
Here lies the ethical question the film consciously poses: Should we sympathize with this psychopath as we understand his context and history? The lack of any explicit articulation of a moral position on the film’s events can be uncomfortable. This, in addition to the internal discourse of the film regarding schizophrenia, depression, and narcissism, can all seem ambivalent to the point of insensitivity to modern realities. In fact, gritty violence and otherwise discomforting sequences abound, all depicted with alarming casualness.
The film requires a thick skin and will invariably stick with you for the week following your viewing, but I would strongly recommend it all the same. The experience is deeply personal and naturally polarizing. While some viewers leave the theater impressed, others leave horrified. The constant, however, is the abundance of quality characterization, intense storytelling, and deep thematic engagement. So head to the Apollo Theatre, “put on a happy face,” and settle in for a truly great film.