“Joker suggests that mental health issues require government funding—a narrative that would actually be progressive, if the film stopped there.”
Title: Joker (2019)
Director: Todd Phillips 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Todd Phillips 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Scott Silver 👨🏼🇺🇸
Review by Robert Daniels 👨🏾🇺🇸
The year is 1981, and Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) works as an advertisement clown caked in white makeup and a green wig, twirling a yellow sign on the grimy streets of Gotham. He suffers from a neurological condition known as “pseudobulbar affect,” which causes him to laugh uncontrollably. Because of such, Arthur carries a card explaining his condition to worried and fearful strangers. Nevertheless, a series of violent events upends his life and sends him into a maddening descent.
Todd Phillips’s Joker, for which Arthur serves as protagonist, heightens the craft of comic book filmmaking. For one, the film’s dingy lighting transforms New York City into the fictional metropolis of crime-riddled Gotham, long defined in Batman lore by its ongoing battle between the haves and have-nots. Long tracking shots renew that legacy, showing dilapidated apartment buildings and long, crowded streets that lead to dark and dangerous alleyways. Likewise, Hildur Guðnadóttir’s brooding score increases the air of revolt that looms over the city—even while some of Gotham’s working class looks toward the elitist Thomas Wayne (Bruce Cullen) to guide them from despair during his mayoral campaign.
Phillips based Arthur upon two white characters consumed with delusions of grandeur: Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (1976) and Rupert Pupkin from The King of Comedy (1982). Like them, the mentally unstable Arthur exists in anonymity. He watches Wayne from afar as his mother Penny (Frances Conroy) writes to the mayoral candidate—who also happens to be her former boss—from their meager apartment for financial assistance. For his part, Arthur has only three goals: to make his next-door neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) fall in love with him, to take care of his mother, and to become a great comedian like Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) whose show he and his mother watch every night.
Through cinematographer Laurence Sher’s elegant close-ups, Phoenix physically morphs from the thoughtful Arthur into Joker—visually crafting a character separate from Heath Ledger, Jared Leto, and Jack Nicholson’s incarnations of the same DC Comics villain. Normally stiff and stocky in his other roles, like Joe in You Were Never Really Here (2018) or Freddie Quell in The Master (2012), Phoenix becomes gangly. He lost 52 lbs for the part, making the ribs in his chest exposed like railroad tracks. Still, he twirls in light ballerina circles—poetically sashaying in a bathroom after his character kills three businessmen on a train who were assaulting him. Bending his neck backwards, stretching his arms to the sky and arching his spine, he fills Arthur with power—casting a spell upon the audience. In fact, one of the film’s perceived dangers lies in the eventual worshipping of this killer, not just by the mindless mob of Gotham in later events, but by the audience too. And how can one not become intoxicated from a camera that swirls around Arthur, like a museum patron circling and observing a Michelangelo sculpture? Phoenix—in the film’s moments of fear, pain, and desperation—paints the character with enough pathos for another sullen white man narrative to “work.”
The women in Joker are rendered through the veil of Arthur’s psychosis and moments of self-perceived grandeur. Initially, he befriends his next-door neighbor and crush, Sophie (Zazie Beetz). One day he barges through her door and forcibly kisses her, and somehow, they begin dating. She supports him during his standup performances and comforts him whenever tragedy strikes. This arc should leave most viewers uneasy—a foreboding air saved only by Phillips revealing these events as hallucinations within Arthur’s mind. In reality, Sophie barely knows the struggling comedian, nevermind dates him. While this twist should cause relief, the information arrives too late. Why spend an entire act grossing out your audience with scenes of sexual harassment as a gambit? The intention of painting Arthur’s deteriorating mental state through example might work in theory, but the execution doesn’t land.
The only other woman in Arthur’s life appears through his mother Penny, who solely exists as a stan for the men in her life, whether it be her son or Mr. Wayne. Arthur adores her because she believes he has a higher purpose: “to bring laughter and joy to the world.” Penny also fills his head with loftier ambitions, intimating to him that he’s the son of Thomas Wayne, born from an affair while she worked as a nanny at Wayne Manor. That brief dream devours Arthur. And when his mother falls ill, he goes on a quest to meet the millionaire to implore him to help her.
Penny and Sophie occupy significant roles, true. But they’re ultimately relegated to cheerleaders for Arthur, lacking any meaningful dimension not defined through his gaze.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 11% of key cast and crew members were POC.
Black characters also exist on the periphery. But unlike the women who play supporting roles in Arthur’s mind, he sees Black characters as representatives of an ineffectual bureaucracy. More broadly, they personify a society that hates him.
For example, Arthur’s state-ordered psychologist, a Black woman, demands to see his notebook—the place where he writes his violent jokes. Even though she holds the rubber stamp to approve his mental health reports, she barely listens to Arthur’s problems. Later, Arthur sees a Black mother and her son on a bus. He entertains the son through comedic facial gestures until the mother scolds him, telling Arthur to leave him alone. Finally, a Black file clerk (Brian Tyree Henry) who works at Arkham Hospital refuses to give Arthur the records he seeks. So he steals them, dashing down the halls of the hospital in a scene that undermines Henry’s character.
Every Black character serves as an example of how society and the system have failed Arthur: They don’t listen to him, or see his acts of kindness, or give him what he needs. They’re impediments, elements of his unraveling psychosis—like his aforementioned hallucinations about Beetz’s Sophie—and they’re barely on screen.
Deduction for Disability: -1.00
On top of sidelining women and Black characters, Phillips’s humor punches down toward those with disabilities. For example, he employs a bad joke using dwarfism as a punchline. When Arthur receives a gun from Randall (Glenn Fleshler), a fellow clown who later gets Arthur fired for owning it, Arthur uses that same gun to kill three bullies on the subway. All hell breaks loose. With the police after the shooter and fearful of being implicated, Randall—along with another clown-agency employee, Gary (Leigh Gill)—decide to confront Arthur at his home. In a particularly violent scene, Arthur seeks revenge for his firing and viciously stabs Randall to death with a pair of scissors—leaving only Gary, who is a little person. Arthur lets him go, but the lock to leave the apartment is too high for him to reach. Phillips plays the scene of Gary jumping for chuckles. And though the moment should probably make most viewers wince at the ableist humor, in my screenings, that scene received the biggest uproar of laughs.
Joker also paints mental disabilities with broad strokes that oversimplify. While Arthur is described as having pseudobulbar affect, he also takes medication for a wide array of unknown ailments. When the government shutters the program that provides his state-ordered psychologist and psychiatric drugs, Arthur sinks deeper into hallucinations while committing murderous acts driven by increasingly shaky logic. He goes from defending his safety on the train to killing an innocent social worker at Arkham Hospital for no reason at all.
Not content with just one violent character who suffers from mental illness, Joker also relegates Penny to the same trope. Like her son, she experiences hallucinations and had even tried to commit suicide after falsely accusing Mr. Wayne of fathering Arthur. Her capacity for inflicting harm faces outwards, too; she abused Arthur when he was young, leading to the government taking him away because of the burn marks and bruises present on his body. These same breaks in reality now cause her to write letters to Mr. Wayne and ask for money. Her arc never transcends this flat characterization as someone who is mentally unstable and dangerous to those around her.
Ultimately, Phillips’s Joker suggests that issues of mental health require government funding and assistance—a narrative that would actually be progressive, if the film stopped there. However, Phillips also stokes fear by relying on the tired and dangerous trope of characterizing people with mental health problems as violent, even though this group is over ten times more likely to be a victim of violence than the general population. Moreover, Americans from all walks of life experience mental illness—fully 1 in 5 adults, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Government services should indeed be provided, but not because this population is dangerous. They should be supported so that all Americans, including those with disabilities, can reach their full potential as members of society.
Mediaversity Grade: F 1.83/5
Phillips’s foray into this origin story culminates with a violent horde overtaking the streets of Gotham. People wear clown masks, worshipping an unsuspecting Arthur as a rallying cry for the poor. While Phillips claims the Joker isn’t glorified, and tries to support that in ways like having Arthur downspiral from defending himself on a train to murdering an innocent social worker, he skirts closely to such elevations. After all, Arthur receives the adulation he craves, with Gotham now on his side. The shots of people cheering on Arthur as he dances above them on the hood of a car makes one result disturbingly and dangerously clear: If you resolve yourself to violent acts against an apathetic society, you’ll become the star you’ve always believed yourself to be.