Joker (2019) In Joker, a film that was expected to be yet another comic book film filled with over-the-top action, director Todd Phillips instead manages to slip social commentary seamlessly into a narrative that focuses on poverty and mental illness rather than the meaningless, fun-to-watch scenes that are associated with the genre of comic book films. The line Phillips walks with Joker is a thin one; some believe the film has gone too far, claiming that it promotes the narrative of white incels and glamorizes the violent behavior portrayed. Yet the film’s underlying message revolving around a corrupt society that ostracizes those in poverty with mental illnesses speaks not to those looking for inspiration, but to those who are blind to the everyday issues that plague the lower class. Joker pushes aside the goal of pleasing audiences with intense action and lovable heroes to instead posit a question: What might happen should a society of wealth ignore its suffering masses? The film’s response, while dark and violent, entertains audiences as they search for the answer alongside main character Arthur Fleck. In short, Joker should be watched—and deserves its eleven nominations at the Academy Awards—for the message of warning it provides its viewers via the artistic platform of film.
Immediately what draws the eye as the film begins is the dark, dank, overcrowded atmosphere of the city that balances on the edge of falling into chaos. The opening scene in which Arthur, dressed as a clown, has his sign stolen by teenagers that he proceeds to chase down streets and alleys with run-down shops and heaps of junk along the sidewalks introduces the poverty that the film will continue to explore as both a setting and a theme. Every scene in the film has a dark feeling to it, whether it be Arthur in the psychiatrist’s office or in his apartment. Nothing escapes the creeping suspicion that there is something off, though what exactly is wrong doesn’t reveal itself until partway through the film. Perhaps it’s the up-close manner that shots are often framed in, or the concentrated four-tone color palette, or simply the superb performance by Phoenix, but the film is discomforting—as it is intended to be.
Todd Phillips took no shortcuts in piecing together this film from scratch, beginning with his original idea of a standalone, grounded comic book film that works to explore the origins of a character without one singular origin story through the unreliable perspective of the character himself. Casting Phoenix before even writing the script defined parts of the film that never would exist if not for the knowledge that Phoenix would accept the role. The combination of Phillips’ writing and Phoenix’s onscreen abilities blend to become the character of Arthur, who is an unreliable narrator at best. The manner in which Phoenix depicts the antihero of Arthur, who manages to gain sympathy despite his actions, speaks to his abilities as an actor; the portrayal of the slow spiral into madness due to the numerous factors of society is a delicate art that Phoenix perfects. Adding to the character is the question that the film urges the audience to ponder: just how much of the events shown actually occur, and how belong to Arthur’s delusions? Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver reveal that in moments, Arthur cannot be trusted, but leave the audience to make up their minds on their own, given that the entire film occurs from Arthur’s viewpoint and therefore provides no answers.
Unlike the typical production order of many feature films, Phillips made the decision to send the script to composer Hildur Guðnadóttir before filming began, who then composed multiple pieces prior to production. This allowed the actors to understand the film’s tone and what the accompanying score would provide during the scenes as they filmed them, leading visuals and audio to seamlessly fit together in post-production. The score itself takes a gracious hand in adding to the film’s underlying mood of discomfort that sends shivers down the spine. Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir takes film scoring to a new level as she slides deep guttural cello melodies underneath the film’s heavy visual sequences, opening each piece from her score with a beautiful yet unnerving phrase played by her native instrument. The star of the score is the cello, whether it be solo or section, and it sets the tone for the entire film. As Arthur slowly devolves onscreen, his narrative is told through the percussive beat of drums and continuous drone of the cellos. It’s a unique film score that diverts from the classic, orchestral scores that grace many of today’s feature films, instead focusing on the isolation and psychosis of the character that it mimics through dissonance and creeping solo melodies.
A second viewing reveals minute details that enhance the film’s experience tenfold; the use of a wood-type letterpress to create the titles rather than the digital creation used for most current film titles, the use of color to contrast between parts of a shot in a single frame, the use of world-building CGI to extend the city of Gotham into a never-ending, claustrophobic metropolis. The attention paid to period-sensitive details only adds to the film’s ability to take one out of the real world and into the similar yet strikingly different world of Gotham City in 1981, such as the period 1980s cars and the old television set in Arthur’s apartment. As the film continues, a sickish green tinge follows Arthur, uncannily recalling to the green hair he sports as a clown that eventually becomes his own. The color palette becomes clear and deliberate; the blues, yellows, reds and greens that grace the screen in various combinations are specific shades that all come together in the end to form the Joker himself.
Cinematography also lends a considerable hand in creating the film’s tone, whether it be the uncomfortably-close framing of Arthur as he undergoes trial after trial or the dimly-lit edges of the frame that only make the film more claustrophobic than it already is. The audience feels trapped alongside Arthur, who feels constricted by his position in life and the lack of opportunities afforded to him. Somehow in a city that bustles constantly as its wealthy residents clash with the impoverished and people struggle to make a living in stark juxtaposition to the benefits filled to the brim with well-dressed benefactors, Arthur constantly appears alone throughout the film with aid from the film’s cinematography. His lone journey is highlighted as he rides transportation alone and climbs the endless stairs to his home, a single figure against the background of many.
At first glance, the film might appear to only minimally address its themes of poverty, mental illness, and isolation, but a closer look uncovers the extreme depth and interconnected nature of the films themes. Within the first few scenes, the theme of poverty is established via the desperate job that Arthur has and the conversation he and his mother have about their lack of wealth, while mental illness becomes prominent through Arthur’s meeting with a therapist. Even in this initial meeting, the connection between the mental health issues Arthur faces and poverty is clear: he no longer will be able to receive medication due to the lack of funding that leads to the shut-down of the Social Services office. The poor status of Arthur mirrors the state of the city, which is quickly decaying as the standard of living decreases and crime increases. The flimsy support that Arthur has similarly crumbles, which only leads to the devolving of his character and the city around him. After being left to deal with his issues alone, his treatment by his coworkers and boss, who label him “a freak,” only perpetuates the isolation that Arthur feels. The film labels the wealthy enemy as “they,” yet another distinction between classes that contributes to the isolation of the poor, specifically Arthur. The attack on Arthur by rich young boys on the subway finally pushes him over the edge into a deep pit of nihilism and violence. As the film continues, Arthur only digs the pit deeper until his actions cause the entire city of Gotham to follow his footsteps off the cliff and into a chaotic and violent revolution.
These themes appear not only within the plot, but also symbolically. The poverty Arthur and his mother have fallen into is mirrored in the enormous staircase he climbs to reach his home every day; he lives at the bottom of the socio-economic staircase, so to speak, and struggles to climb it metaphorically as well as physically. His medical condition, which hinders his ability to live a normal life, is only exasperated when he cannot receive treatment, thus losing control over his figurative and literal mask he wears to appear normal. The loss of the little power he has over his life is demonstrated through the attack on the subway where he finally breaks from society completely and stands up to his attackers. It is in this moment that the narrative is flipped on its head: rather than continue to be pushed down by the wealthy, Arthur decides to make his own path to the top by letting go of the control he perceives to have. This release, symbolized by his descent on the stairs dressed as the Joker with makeup to boot, allows Arthur to step out of his low status and force a change onto his world. The continuous theme of dancing indicates the moments in which Arthur has truly let go of convention and adhered to his own morality, reflected in the expression of his artistic side. Ironically, his letting go of what he thinks he controls gives him more power to enact a difference around him.
Although this film takes place in an alternate universe and in the past, the commentary on today’s world is not lost; the depiction of rich, elite politicians promising to help the poor to enhance their image and power while simultaneously ignoring those in poverty is nothing if not relatable, while the revolution kicked off by Arthur heeds our world to take action before our own cities devolve into chaos on the streets.