Arthur Fleck (aka Joker played by Joaquin Phoenix) has grown up with a single mother who is physically and mentally ill. He is the victim of child abuse that left him with a borderline debilitating brain injury that causes him to laugh uncontrollably for no reason.
On top of that, he’s mentally ill, poor, professionally unsuccessful, girls don’t like him, and he’s seen as a loser and punching bag to most of society.
Director Todd Phillips has said he wanted to root the fantastical character we know as the Joker in the real world, and you couldn’t come up with a more perfect recipe to create a disillusioned, angry young man who would turn to violence to gain an ounce of power.
A series of events (getting fired, daddy issues, mommy issues and girl issues) leave Arthur, who in the real world is a rent-a-clown who dreams of being a stand-up comedian, a little on edge. He ends up in a confrontation with three Wall street bros on a subway late at night, and when he kills them he becomes a folk hero of anti-capitalism, celebrated for the first time in his dark and damned life.
Joaquin Phoenix delivers a performance that inhabits his every cell – it’s not subtle but it is transfixing. Everything about him changes as Arthur Fleck – his body (he lost 52 pounds) is twisted and skeletal, his breathing, his posture, his mannerisms all add up to embody the tragic despair that is Joker.
The problem with the film comes not from the main performance, which is unquestionably excellent, or the gratuitous violence, of which there is plenty but not particularly exceptional in today’s vast catalogue of violent films, but from the fact this movie has nothing to say.
It pretends to presents itself as a commentary on violence in our culture, but then presents only more violence and no commentary. There is no insight to share, it’s simply a well-acted character study of a young man who grows up under tragic circumstances and devolves into violence as a result – a story that we are already too familiar with.
A lot of attention was paid to Joker after its debut at festivals earlier this year. Some have said it reads like the manifesto of a mass killer or a call to arms for incels. Having seen it twice, I understand those concerns.
Part of the problem is that it’s so real. This isn’t a cheesy, super-violent little movie that can just be written off as trash. It’s a beautifully shot film centered on a spellbinding performance that has a huge platform and will open in wide release to be seen by millions around the world.
Because it offers no larger context or great insight it never rises past its most basic and unsettling premise. The refusal to make a commentary on any larger issue — mental health, violence, access to guns, the psychological toll of living in poverty, or bullying — means it adds up to a collection of scenes that justify mass violence as a reaction to a life filled with disappointment.
That’s a dangerous and dark conclusion, which is hardly worth the price of admission.
Vicky Sparks is a Bright’s Grove native and movie critic for Global TV’s The Morning Show, which airs nationally on Fridays. Her Journal Reviews cover movies playing at Galaxy Cinemas Sarnia