All it takes is one bad day to change a human forever.
Set in an unrelentingly intense but arresting 1980s New York (or Gotham), times have never been scarier; and nothing reflects that feeling more than Arthur Fleck. Fleck, portrayed by the great Joaquin Phoenix, is a lonely and mentally disturbed man who just wants to feel belonged in the world. Unfortunately, there’s no space for him- he’s trapped in a harsh world; or, as sadly told by his social worker, “this city doesn’t give a shit about you or me”.
In Scorsese-light fashion (think Travis Bickle as a comic book villain), the movie forces us to understand, if not agree with, Fleck’s terrifyingly inevitable downward spiral into psychotic villainy. He’s been bullied and manipulated throughout his entire life. In a world that rejects him at every turn, it’s quite easy to empathize with his struggles. That is, until a subway train ride changes his life for the worst (or in his case, the best).
This scene is when Phoenix begins to fully immerse himself into Joker-mode – psychotically confident, murderous, and most of all, devilishly smart. His transformation as a product of a downtrodden society becomes hauntingly and fully realized. His manic laughter, which initially turned out to be a disorder, is now transitioned into a chilling trademark. And his encounter with the family will give a very interesting insight as to how much deeper his descent into madness will fall, which we all know to be remniscent of an abyss.
Beneath all of this madness, there is a sharp commentary on how humans handle mental health whether it’s displayed positively or negatively. It’s a theme that proves terrifyingly (and unfortunately timelessly) relevant as the movie strongly hints that most humans really are too consumed or selfishly short-sighted to concern themselves with other human’s struggles.
Todd Phillips, best known for crude and dark comedies such as The Hangover trilogy and Old School, makes an impressively confident departure from comedy to a hauntingly sad yet brilliant psychological thriller. Here, he evokes the atmosphere of a Taxi Driver–King of Comedy (Scorsese is the executive producer) to tell a story which is somehow both unsettling yet hypnotic. The colors are muted and grainy, the streets are dark and filled with paranoia, and the direction overall makes us feel that we are living in its world as we watch. And whenever violence strikes, my oh my. It is used as an off-guard gut punch to show that anyplace and anywhere you go, it is around. Instead of it being treated as gratuitous, it highlights how easy human nature (or nature period) can resort to a lifetime of violence once their backs are against the wall.
Best of all, the camera never ceases to focus on the basic human reactions and tone. This is most evident with Phoenix as his laugh could be heard and experienced as a disguise of anger, disgust, sadness, and rare happiness. How he reacts to a society around him, which is best exemplified by Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, and the legendary Robert De Niro, only strangely helps his case on how he loses his sanity by the day. It almost dangerously sees him as a hero of the people, but thankfully by the end he is shown as a full blown psychopath with no regard for life- his or anyone else’s.
But at the end of it all, the movie forces you to ask yourself: could this have been avoided had we as humans practiced empathy more? And how can we cope in a society where it seems that no one cares about you?