Joker: A Gritty Modern Take on An Old Villain
Photo Source: GameSpot
My friend and I went to our local theater to see the movie Joker on opening weekend. The movie is a gritty adaption and backstory movie for one of the most famous comic book villains of all time. the Joker. Some incidents during screenings have also been drawing national attention, including one incident where a moviegoer started loudly cheering during an extremely violent scene, causing movie goers to fear for their safety and leave early. The movie surely is dark, but after seeing it for myself, I did begin to wonder whether the movie was as arresting and nuanced as other people were giving it credit for.
Joker takes place in Gotham City some time in the ‘70s or ‘80s, calling back to the crime-ridden New York City of the same era. We follow Arthur Fleck, a mentally disturbed man, who works as a clown to take care of himself and his bedridden mother. The movie serves to paint a dark picture of the world around him, between an apathetic social service system and the actively antagonistic denizens of Gotham City (one of the opening scenes shows a group of kids stealing a sign from Arthur, luring him into an alley, and subsequently beating him). Joker delivers in the sense that it is entirely believable that the world around Arthur would slowly mold him into the villain he becomes, and the process in which he approaches insanity is in a gradual and believable pace. Jaoquin Phoenix absolutely nails his role as the Joker. Between his mannerisms and speech (including the famous laugh), the character feels eerily believable.
The audio and visual design for Joker was done particularly well. Director Todd Philips does do a great job at creating Gotham to be as dark and grungy as possible. Nearly every subway and wall is tagged with tons of graffiti. Streets and alleys are lined with trash bags, and the night time is backlit by orange street lights, which casts everything with a sort of fearfully warm yet dark glow. Everything is dirty, chaotic, and worn, just as an unforgiving city would be. The music had some great moments, as it used both an orchestral soundtrack courtesy of Hildur Guðnadóttir and more popular music such as Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” or Cream’s “White Room.” The orchestral soundtrack is very cello heavy, which contributes to the ominous tone that the movie goes for.
Fair warning, this movie includes a lot of graphic violence on screen. I brought my famous security flannel ("the security blanket you can wear") to the theater, and there were a couple times where it absolutely came in handy. Luckily, the gory scenes were predictable enough for the most part where I could cover my eyes before the worst of it happened, but if you have a week stomach or can’t handle murder scenes on screen, then skip this movie or watch it with a friend who you can trust to tell you when it’s okay to look.
One of the biggest buzzes around the movie is its political and social commentary. One of the most talked-about subjects is the movie’s approach to class warfare the tensions between the haves and the have-nots in Gotham City. While this is a commonly discussed theme, it takes more of a backseat than I expected when it came to the movie. At the forefront, Joker is more of a character study that sometimes takes the time to bring up certain social issues that may have contributed to the creation of the Joker. While there are certain groups that use the Joker’s actions as a banner for political movements in the movie, the Joker himself is never actually political. He is more of an agent of chaos that people will attach to, and, in fact, one . could blame another character for politicizing the actions of the Joker. I would say the most interesting themes of the movie stem from the systemic failings of the government structures that are supposed to keep people like Arthur from going too far off the deep end. As funding for social programs get cut, we see Arthur’s delusions and neuroses grow more dangerous when left unchecked. It leads one to wonder if the Joker would still have become who he was under different circumstances.
Joker is not without its flaws. I think the biggest problem that the movie suffers from is that its image of society is sometimes unreasonably dark. There are barely any good people in the movie, and strangers are portrayed as a range between apathetic and actively antagonistic. The idea that some kids in the opening scene would both steal Arthur’s sign and then subsequently beat him severely sets the tone well for what the rest of the movie would be like, but it makes it harder to truly believe that this movie is supposed to tell you something about our own society. In fact, because the movie buys too far into this gritty and nearly evil setting, it becomes harder to truly relate societal issues to the universe of this movie, and sometimes the political aspects became too on-the-nose. There was something almost comical about protesters holding signs that literally said “kill the rich” that made it a bit harder when it came to immersion.
Overall, Joker was a good movie. Phillips was able to create a dark and gritty universe that could reasonably spit out someone like the Joker, and Joaquin Phoenix puts out an amazing performance. As a general movie and backstory, the movie does well. However, it does start to flounder when it comes to delivering on social commentary that feels actually relatable. Overall, I would generally recommend Joker. I did have a good time seeing it, and it certainly does touch on some of our current anxieties regarding class conflict and systemic treatment of the mentally ill.