The Extreme Hardships of Worsening Mental Illness in Joker

Credit Nel Aldea

The Joker is almost certainly the most famous Batman villain to ever been written. With the legendary performances of the Joker ranging from Jack Nicholson to Heath Ledger, the role comes with high expectations.  In the fallout of Jared Leto’s unpopular performance, it was a time for someone to fill in the Joker’s shoes.

Enter Joaquin Phoenix.

A highly renowned actor from award-winning movies such as “Her,” and “The Master,” Phoenix has adopted the role in the new movie, “Joker,” a new depiction of the character’s origin story. Grossing $281.6 million domestically and $737.5 million worldwide, “Joker” has become the fourth-highest-grossing R-rated film of all time. Before it even came out, the film received concerns about how it might affect the public. At its release, critics gave it 68% on rotten tomatoes, while 93% of viewers reported to have enjoyed the film. Since the opening in theaters, it has stirred up controversy about the depiction of mental illness and the amount of violence.  For me, the film isn’t about the Joker as we know him, but instead about a tragic victim of mental illness through their point of view traveling down the wrong path to the solution. 

Based in 1981, Arthur Fleck, destined to become the Joker, flows through a bustling version of Gotham that appears reminiscent of New York. The setting shows off a gritty and lived-in city down to the smallest attention to detail from dirt build-up on mirrors to a burnt out light bulb. Each and every character or city goer in the film has their own personality when interacting with the world that brings a sense of realism which reflects smoothly off the main plot of mental illness. As Arthur Fleck moves through the world, people are doing normal and ordinary things, but as the mental state of Arthur changes, so too do the surrounding bystanders to his actions. In the beginning, Fleck is shown to suffer from a slight mental illness, but as the story goes on it gets worse, causing him to turn to crime as a desperate solution. As his crimes begin to receive attention, he turns even further down this dark path.

This concept is disturbingly different and gripping the way it is pictured. A common origin story, such as Batman, shows a hero born out of tragedy.  “Joker,” though, flips this premise as Arthur Fleck suffers from tragedies and turns into crime and violence to becoming a villain. However, this film isn’t about a character proclaiming himself as a hero or villain, it’s about a broken man finding himself a place in a society- even in a way that is profoundly uncomfortable for the audience as Fleck becomes increasingly violent and unpredictable as his world begins to break down around him, opening the viewer up to curiosity behind the meaning of it all.

With the narrative coming from Arthur, the story is centered around him as he guides the viewers through his point of view. This gives the audience a closer look at his changing mental state. It portrays every detail in the defining moments of the transition, especially in the close-up shots. As the camera moves to fill the whole character’s face, Joaquin Phoenix’s acting talent shines through, showing the emotions of the Joker. In certain scenes, the face of Arthur Fleck tells the whole story, what his past was, what the present is, and what might come in the future. This reflects Arthur’s mental process of perceiving the world as he sees himself as the the only one standing out from the crowd. At certain points of the film, Arthur doesn’t seem to take notice or care to the surrounding people. In his mind, he’s at the top as he travels through the world with the same flow and motion. In moments of triumph, he dances in an enchanting and memorizing way to show him at peace; a slight sliver of hope for the character. This signaling out of a character digs deep into the minds of the viewers, especially with the looming theme of mental illness.

The film’s music further helps with this storytelling. With close-up shots, harsh orchestral music enhances the shot with gut-wrenching feeling that clearly puts forward the twisted mind of Arthur. However in moments of achievement (however twisted that achievement might be), fun and uplifting music plays with songs like “White Room,” by Cream, “Laughing,” by The Guess Who, and “Smile,” from Jimmy Durant.  One scene depicts Arthur dancing and swinging his arms to the song “Rock and Roll Part 2,” by Gary Glitter. It’s a fun a bouncy song that uplifts the theatre crowd as Arthur struts down the stairs in a show of individualism.

The film is controversial with its heavy themes of mental illness and violence. Although some may disagree, to me the film depicts these in an understanding manner that is disturbingly beautiful provided with the cinematography, music, and performance that excels the film to an Oscar-level picture. The more you see the film, the more you notice about the character. The vague tone with endless details that are continually second-guessed by the reader is surprisingly Gatsby-esque. I recommend seeing the film, but  warning that it contains mature and disturbing aspects. In a way, this motion picture might revolutionize the production of future films.

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