TIFF 2019: “Joker” Review
Joker is perhaps the most anticipated film of TIFF this year and boy, did it deliver. Taking an extremely dark and terrifyingly relevant approach to the origin story, Joker tackles something that has plagued our society. It’s not intended as a glorification of the character but rather a character study that exposes the worst part of our society: how we treat our poor, disenfranchised, and mentally ill and the potential consequences of such inaction.
Arthur Fleck is an impoverished young man who suffers from mental illness, but like many in society, lacks the resources or assistance he needs in managing his mental illness. As the programs to provide mental health care are cut, Arthur is left to his own devices as we see his mind slowly descend further into madness and less and less able to cope with the world around him. Living alone with his mother and working as a clown for hire, Arthur has focused his energy on always being happy and making other people laugh. This has been at the expense of his mental stability and finally, it all comes boiling over.
Joker is not the fleeting and fluffy comic book origin stories to which we are accustomed. It is a gritty, dark, and violent look into what happens in our society when we ignore the poor and the mentally ill. The writing in the film is spectacular and hits a lot of points with a tenacity that commands notice. While working on his stand up routine, Arthur jokes that “the worst part about mental illness is people expect you to act like you don’t have it.”
The use of music in the film is very effective and haunting in some ways. We get versions of “Send in the Clowns,” “Smile,” and a few more that establish this unhinged and uneasy feeling that gives you pause as to what may happen next. These typically happy songs are turned into something dark and sinister in the film and further warp the minds of the audience into a sense of instability.
My hesitation with this film is the problematic message it could send to the wrong people who don’t know quite understand its intention. Apart from that, there are points in the film where it feels like the audience isn’t sure whether or not to laugh at something so the filmmakers put in too much ominous music to cue the audience. Most of the film is not intended to be funny, but a sad portrait of the decline of mental health treatment in this country.
Certain scenes in the film are so effective such as Arthur’s continued journey up and down these long and isolated stairs that provide some beautifully framed shots. The costume design and the colors of the film are extremely effective in creating a world that is similar to ours but somehow slightly different.
Joaquin Phoenix is disturbing as Arthur Fleck. His mannerisms and approach to the role elevates it above common comic book adaptations but brings it to the audience as something tangible and something all too real. His performance demonstrates so openly to the audience that you’ve known someone like Arthur, you’ve seen him, and you may have ignored him. This is what is most unnerving about his performance. He gets to the core of the audience and shakes them in a way that is profound and moving, making this easily an Oscar-worthy performance and one of his best to date.
Joker isn’t the fluffy comic book film we are so used to but a realistic portrayal of madness manifested in a person rejected and ignored by society and left to his own devices. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance will shake you to your core and leave a lasting impact on you. Joker is by no means an easy film to watch, but one that so ardently points out our shortcomings as a society. Incredibly poignant and disconcerting.