Creative commons photo courtesy of Warner Bros.
“Joker” is a film that has been mired in controversy long before its release, with the Washington Post describing it as “one of the most divisive movies of the year.” Many, without even watching it, have criticized its portrayal of violence. But beneath the surface-level debate lies an unnerving yet great film enhanced by a brilliant portrayal of the iconic villain.
“Joker” follows Arthur Fleck, a struggling clown who aspires to become a stand-up comedian but is held back by mental illness. Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Fleck, pulls off one of the greatest performances of his career. From his physicality to his conversations with himself, Phoenix is riveting. In the film, Fleck has a neurological condition that causes him to uncontrollably laugh at inappropriate times, and Phoenix’s portrayal of it is often painful to watch. His performance carries the film, and “Joker” is worth seeing based on his acting alone.
But the film’s strengths go far beyond its central performance. The story casts a light on mental illness: showing how society and individuals ignore it, as well as the consequences of their negligence. Predictability is often a flaw in storytelling, but “Joker” wields it to its advantage. Because the transformation from Arthur Fleck into the Joker is inevitable, each scene has a strong sense of dread. Fleck is a ticking time bomb, and you constantly wonder what will finally push him over the edge.
When he cracks, it is brutal. Though the film contains much less violence than a typical action film, it treats each violent act with disturbing realism. While some of the film’s detractors claim that it glorifies violence, its brutality is meant to be horrifying, not something to be celebrated.
Many of the most uncomfortable scenes come not from the violence, but from the portrayal of Fleck’s mental illness and his failed attempts to connect with others. A standout scene is when Fleck tries to perform a stand-up routine while being completely disconnected from what most consider funny, and the result is both excruciatingly awkward and tragic. Scenes like these challenge the viewer, forcing them to confront how they deal with mental illness.
“Joker” will be discussed for years to come, and rightfully so. It’s not for the faint of heart; but for those who are up for it, it is an unsettling experience that you will not forget anytime soon.