Joaquin Phoenix has quickly become one of my favorite actors. His commitment to the character is unbelievable and it left me wanting to learn more about his work. He reportedly lost 52 pounds to play this role. I was introduced to his acting in the movie “Her”, where he plays a guy who falls in love with an OS system. Somehow, he manages to capture the fragility of the need for human connection combined with our tendency towards narcissism and a fear of real intimacy.
The script written by Todd Phillips tells an alternative back story of how Arthur Fleck becomes “The Joker.” The plot follows Arthur in his journey living with a challenging disability that makes him vulnerable to job loss, social isolation and bullying. The absence of an outlet for him to express his feeling of loss and loneliness is heart breaking. People push him away no matter how badly he tries to please others and make them happy. The hardest part of trying to comply with everyone’s wishes, is that someone will always be unhappy and is a lost cause. Arthur has lost himself after internalizing the labels that were bestowed upon him, freak, happy boy, weirdo, useless, broken. There are so many that it makes it hard to remember who he is below all of that. Social rejection from his mother, peers and the lack of friendships create an open wound in his sense of humanity. Resentment begins to build up and it drives him mad. So he resorts to living in a world of fantasy, where he can escape the unbearable pain he is suffering. The script describes the step by step journey from disability into severe mental illness when someone lacks emotional support.
This movie also introduces a political dimension to the character. In a way, he represents the underdog, those who have been forgotten by society and politicians. The feeling of disenfranchisement is the binding element between the audience and the character. Poverty hits Arthur and his family in many ways and it seems to be partly responsible for his descend into madness. The inefficiency of the social net, where his therapist is so underpaid that she barely cares to pay attention to what he is saying. He repeats himself over and over again only to hear that he has a problem. Duh! It leaves you wondering, how many people that are falling through the cracks could potentially be pushed over the edge crossing the line into complete anarchy? Heath Ledger’s version of the Joker in The Dark Knight paints a more sophisticated version of the character where he is no longer confused and feels comfortable escalating the labels he internalized. Again, a political statement is made when the Joker visits Harvey Dent at the hospital to show him that “control is an illusion” and that once we understand that we can’t control outcomes, we become completely free to be, free to re-imagine our own rules. The Joker reminds us that while institutions seem solid, we live in a constant state of anarchy. Hence Harvey’s signature move, as he transitions into “Two Face,” is to make all decisions by tossing a coin, accepting that he can’t control all the variables.
Joaquin Phoenix’s version of the Joker is so relatable, that the whole theater began to clap when he finally stands for himself and dispenses the bad guys some of their own medicine. Although you want to cheer for him, things quickly turn from a well deserved relief and a sense of justice into a downward spiral of complete madness. The poison that has been building for years (resentment) is finally released when he realizes that his supposed ‘disability’ was not caused by a birth defect. Learning that things are not always what they appear could be extremely destabilizing.
If you have not seen this film, I recommend that you bring some Kleenex and a hugging partner. This is a movie that explores the dark side of the human mind like I have never seen before. Joaquin does an excellent job playing someone with a disability, making you feel like you want to take care of him. Leaves you wondering if this is something that could happen to any of us under the wrong circumstances.
The most shocking part of the movie for me, was that it is based on a DC Comic character and DC tends to make happy go lucky family films. This deviates greatly from what we have seen in the past. I can’t wait to see the sequel and what the writers will come up with.
What did you think of the film? Favorite parts? Leave your comments below.