TIFF 2019 Review: Joker is a Deeply Disturbing and Complex Character Study.
One of the most talked-about films of 2019 is Joker. The film held its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and was met by rave reviews and an 8-minute standing ovation. This is usually a great sign. However, it is not uncommon for a film to experience this type of reaction at film festivals. Still, Joker was on very high on my list of most anticipated films, and my level of excitement only grew stronger after hearing the early buzz out of Venice.
Shortly after winning the Golden Lion award, Joker made its way to the Toronto International Film Festival, where I was lucky enough to see the film. I am happy to report my sky-high expectations were not only met, they were exceeded.
Joker is a complex character study exploring mental illness in a gritty, and honest way. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a man suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness while attempting to live a healthy life. Arthur lives with his sick mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), in a poverty-stricken neighborhood in Gotham City. He works as a clown-for-hire, with aspirations of becoming a stand-up comedian. Arthur tries his best to stay happy, but everyday life keeps getting worse. After a series of tragic events, Arthur’s mental health slips even further causing him to lash out and become an unlikely menace to society.
I needed a day to process what I watched before feeling comfortable expressing my thoughts on the many themes explored in Joker. The movie tackles several relevant topics such as our failing health care system, negligence from government officials, poverty, gun control, and bullying, among other issues. These themes are looked at in a very dark and depressing manner, and it’s no coincidence they feel similar to the world we currently live in.
Major kudos to director Todd Phillips for having the courage to take a beloved comic book villain and create something fresh and new for the character. Before anyone saw the film, Phillips made it clear his take on the Clown Prince of Gotham would be original and not follow any stories from the comics. So, if you are expecting a fun villain origin story, be prepared to instead watch a film unlike any other comic book movie out there.
By using a classic comic character like Joker to sell his vision to the general public, Phillips has created a movie the typical comic book fan wouldn’t usually seek out. However, since the Batman villain makes for an excellent way to sell a lot of tickets, I am not sure everyone is ready for what Phillips has brought to life. This is a very deranged movie. It is incredibly violent and uncomfortably realistic, and I was blown away by it.
It takes a lot to get me there. Typically, only a handful of films each year truly stand out. Joker is one of those films. Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver have constructed a deeply disturbing film about how society has failed to help those in need. Arthur doesn’t start off as a bad guy but rather a man with a mental health problem that no one cares enough to do anything about. He is constantly picked on and ridiculed when all he wants to do is make people smile. Meanwhile, his psychologist would rather prescribe more medication rather than listen to anything Arthur has to say.
As a viewer, you can see Arthur’s descent into madness. He becomes tired of faking happiness when deep down, he isn’t. Phillips and Silver use this film as a way to make a bold statement about our society through the eyes of a fictional character. In one scene, late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) plays a clip of Arthur attempting stand-up comedy. While live on air, Murray openly pokes fun at Arthur. As a culture, we often mock others (online, especially) and show little to no remorse for our actions.
As a society, we have a real lack of concern for the poor and those with mental health issues. We put our faith in politicians hoping they are going to help us, but their campaigns are often built on lies and false promises. These are sort of things being explored in Joker and the reason why Arthur eventually goes nuts. Other things further add fuel to the fire, but that speaks to other surprises the film has to offer.
Joaquin Phoenix‘s performance as Arthur is astonishing. This is the performance of a lifetime that will be near impossible to top in the foreseeable future. If you thought Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker in The Dark Knight was twisted, wait until you see what Phoenix has managed to do with the character. Phoenix has always been a dedicated and talented actor, but his work in Joker takes it to the next level. We have never seen the Joker portrayed like this before.
Additionally, Phillips pays homage to an amalgam of films from the 70s and 80s, including Taxi Driver and Network. While watching Joker, one can easily see the love Phillips has for cinema, with an evident yearning to make something this daring. That said, even with the apparent influence of Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, and Stanley Kubrick, Phillips never overdoes it. He was determined to create something challenging that could stand out on its own. I feel he delivered.
Joker is a flawless masterpiece, as well as a film guaranteed to polarize audiences. While inspired by a comic book character, the film is so much more than a popcorn flick. Joker is a dark and complex exploration of mental illness, led by Phoenix’s phenomenal performance, which elevates the film to the next level.