Todd Phillips’ Joker arrives in theaters having already created a wave of protests and social media outrage that the titular character would be proud of. Some critics who have seen it are concerned that its content may incite violence, as the fear is that some may embrace the chaos the Crown Prince of Crime creates on screen and try to emulate it. In this day and age, I wouldn’t dismiss the notion. Things that I thought would never happen occur with a regularity that’s made them commonplace, rather than shocking. That we hardly raise an eyebrow when a mass shooting or some other senseless act of violence takes place is more disturbing than the acts themselves.
Be that as it may, I hope that Joker’s true message isn’t lost amidst the turmoil the reactionary media will surely raise in its wake. Far from a call for violence, the film is a desperate, plaintive cry for help, an indictment of a society that ignores the mentally ill within it, calling for more treatment for those afflicted when a tragedy occurs, only to forget about them once the next news cycle begins.
Taking place in mid-1970s Gotham City, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a man who’s been brushed aside by society. Working as a clown for hire and caring for his invalid mother (Frances Conroy) in the rundown apartment they share, his goal is to be a stand-up comedian. Taking numerous medications and with a history of mental illness, Fleck is at sea in an ever-rising ocean of madness, his delusions of success and acceptance the only things that get him through the day. The therapy he gets through a social agency is ineffective and when budget cuts eliminate it and his access to his medicine, it’s only a matter of time before he’s pushed over the edge, reacting in a violent, impulsive manner that seals his fate and inexplicably starts a movement that other alienated souls embrace.
The script by Scott Silver and Phillips is ambitious but bloated. A few inspired twists reel viewers back into a story that may tax their patience as the writers aren’t satisfied to make a point once when three times will do. Repetition regarding Fleck’s behavior and its causes threaten to dull the tragedy surrounding him, resulting in an erratically paced and at times, frustrating film. Also, the director’s use of Hildur Guonadottir’s thunderous score to underscore the obvious betokens no great faith in the audience’s ability to keep up. However, kudos must be given to the way in which the Batman mythos is woven into this story; it is truly inspired and will please longtime fans.In the end, the success of the film lies on Phoenix’s shoulders. He’s as committed as an actor can be to not simply bring this iconic character to life but ground him in reality. He realizes Fleck’s slide into madness as a battle against his worst demons, eliciting our sympathy one minute, only to be absolutely terrifying the next. This culminates brilliantly during the movie’s climax, a sure to be much talked about sequence that finds the actor alternating between rage, humor and madness at the drop of a hat. He’s a wonder to behold.
And here’s hoping Phoenix’s work is not in vain. The film will surely be a runaway hit and may round up a slew of year-end awards. However, only if it serves as a platform for discussion of greater mental health services will Joker’s purpose be fully realized and counted as a success.