Updated: Aug 22, 2021
The Joker doesn't only reveal the origin of the famed villain, but also the persistent problem when it comes to addressing mental health struggles as a community.
When I heard that Joker was premiering at the Venice Film Festival, I was shocked. DC movies, as of late, have not been as appealing and enjoyable to me as an average movie goer. I found the writing to be forced at times and the story arc falling all over the place. The Dark Knight, however, remains an all-time favorite, mostly because of Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker. I always claimed that Ledger’s interpretation would always be my favorite. But after seeing Joaquin Phoenix’s take on the Joker, I’m finding it hard to pick a favorite, as both of them highlight intriguing parts of the comic book character in captivating ways. I was interested to see the movie with a more critical lens and heightened expectations after I heard the rave reviews, although some told me to expect more of the same: pretty good acting, underwhelming story... I wanted to see for myself. When the credits rolled after the film, the two names I kept repeating out loud were Todd Phillips, writer and director, and Joaquin Phoenix. It might be the writer in me, but it felt like I was behind the scenes hearing the director’s vision while it was coming to life on screen; as if I heard Phillips’ and Phoenix’s conversations on set. Below are few of the many decisions that caught my eye, making this movie one that I won’t easily forget.
Cello, cello, and more cellos. As a lover of string instruments, I know a cello when I hear one and cello is the perfect instrument to articulate the Joker’s depth and heaviness. It seemed to be the main score of the movie, the cello’s bellowing growl made an appearance at key moments of the Joker’s downward spiral and haunting acceptance of his true nature. The score filled the silent moments with ominous certainty, making you want to lean back in your seat to gain space from the inevitable: he was only going to get worst. Joker’s voice was another decision that added to the complex auditory experience. Phoenix’s voice remained innocent, soft, and light, even in anger. I believe it forced viewers to see the human underneath the sickness and provided a complicated juxtaposition to his actions. But it was his horrifying weight loss that sent me over the edge. It’s nice to see Joaquin Phoenix in post-production interviews looking healthy.
As someone who does not know DC comics and the many origins of the Joker in detail, I was surprised at how much I supported for the Joker’s redemption. In this movie you see first-hand the Joker’s demise, as he tries to get better and join the “normal” world saying, “I just don’t want to feel bad anymore.” It seemed like he was really trying! But Phillips and his team wanted you to sit in his defeat in silence. Viewers experienced his failure and desperation intimately just long enough so that by the time he decides to embrace his madness, take control, and cease compromising, you’re super excited for him, almost happy! There was one violent scene in particular that my boyfriend and I didn’t even flinch at because, yeah, that guy deserved it after what he did to Author Fleck. The movie played on a delicate balance of redemption and madness. You awaited the Joker’s self-realization, but you don’t feel prepared for what is going to come as a consequence of that. And I will tell you now that you’re not going to be prepared.
It is no secret that the Joker is crazy. But how the movie navigates the topic of mental illness resonates with a somber reality in today’s America. The Joker speaks explicitly on mental illness and the resentment he has for those who chose not to see that struggle or refuse to understand him. In one scene, he expressed his frustration in giving the world kindness, joy, and laughter but receiving nothing but disrespect and erasure in return. This is not just the complaints of crazy villains in movies, but anyone who’s met this unforgiving world with kindness only to receive nothing or worst based on their mental illness knows how that can feel. The first thing that came to mind at that scene was the many suicides and violent acts completed by those trying to live with a mental illness but being met with silence or shame (I’m talking about mental illness here not white privilege used in court to justify hate crimes). It was a worthy theme and a timely one. How easy it is to record, make fun, or stigmatize those who’s mental illness is spilling on the streets in the eyes of the homeless or the weirdo at school. The Joker is an extreme reminder that those people, like all people, have breaking points. But it seems only when it is too late that mental health becomes a topic of discussion (insert every school shooting in the last year).
The only other thing I heard about the Joker before going to see it was that there were heightened police presence at certain theaters on opening night, after authorities learned of some chatter on the dark web from inspired individuals. I don’t know DC Comic characters (or any comics for that matter) very well, but I’m not sure if there is another super hero or villain that inspires such a response in the real world. There is something about the Joker that disturbs but also stirs people. I had to shower that film off of me when I got home, because it was so potent with the disturbing reality of humanity’s capacity for darkness. The Joker is fiction but the themes are made real by Todd Phillips, his team, and Joaquin Phoenix.