MILD SPOILERS – PLEASE BEWARE
I never thought I would say these words, but I think I have finally seen a Joker origin film good enough to stand alongside Heath Ledger’s Academy award-winning performance from The Dark Knight. And I do not say these words lightly. While everyone else on planet Earth is getting hung up on this movie “glorifying mental illness”, I’m sitting here wondering why Joaquin Phoenix still hasn’t won an Oscar already. I’m sure I can’t be the only one. Maybe this performance is the one. I’d like to see that happen to him.
But let’s address the ‘other’ elephant in the room for a second. For anyone that has experienced mental illness, I think this movie definitely would have struck a chord. But isn’t that what good entertainment is supposed to do, even if that wasn’t the plan? I read about this film supposedly being a real movie with a cartoon character at its heart. Does it really matter that Joker is just a cartoon character? I enjoyed this film regardless of whether or not that was actually supposed to be a thing. If you can’t see the realism that both Joaquin Phoenix and Todd Phillips masterfully weaved into Arthur Fleck and his grim existence, you’re missing the point entirely.
As people, we really don’t like it when we’re reminded of our own personal demons and shortcomings. Arthur Fleck is a man with a lot of these, the smallest of which is his mental illness. What I mean by this is if you strip away a person’s disability, what do you see? Even without his delusions, there was something really wrong with Arthur Fleck. There was something dark and ugly seething under the surface of his very thin skin, clawing its way out. Becoming the Joker was his way of escaping his own limitations and the limitations that he felt the world had placed on him. Arthur is a man disenfranchised by society, standing on the edge of a cliff where most people end up jumping because that’s the better option. This horrible shit pile of an existence was his reality, and Arthur was sick and tired of playing nice and jumping off that cliff. The only difference between Arthur and the status quo is that he was already one foot over that line that your average normal, functioning adult wouldn’t dare to cross.
Arthur was a victim of society in every way. His environment was at least partially to blame for his gradual derailment into madness. Gotham was quite possibly the worst city to be living in for everyone else, let alone someone like Arthur. A society that is burdened by a “dog-eat-dog” mentality where even the people who are supposed to be symbols of hope in a city that has lost its soul are lying to everyone to keep up appearances. Even the good guys are bad – let’s be honest, Bruce’s dad was a dick. There was nowhere for Arthur to go and becoming the Joker offered Arthur a way out of having to excuse people for their cruelty and lack of sympathy.
I don’t know if I buy the whole “it was all just a delusion” story plot some critics have mentioned in their reviews. Yes, we already knew Arthur was delusional, but for the whole film to be a delusion? I don’t agree. At some point, we know that at least a few of the events in the film really happened. It wouldn’t have made sense for an audience to watch Arthur slowly losing his grip on reality only to be ripped off at the end because he made it all up. He wasn’t faking his mental illness – his therapy visits were smothered in realism. How many times does a person with mental illness, that they can barely understand themselves, need to explain it to an unsympathetic ear? I know people who have been and are in therapy and more often than not it’s just easier for the therapist to throw a prescription at the problem than it is to actually try and help someone in dire need of saving.
Joaquin Phoenix is superb as Joker. There’s really nothing much else to say about that. As Arthur Fleck, he is calm, soft-spoken and unassuming. As the Joker, he wears a smile that hides a grimace underneath. Under the guise of a clown, he is everyone’s worst nightmare; he is a man who has nothing left to lose.
It would be a damn shame if all of that were just a delusion.