Director Todd Phillips created the latest version of the infamous madman Joker with Joaquin Phoenix as the socially unaware and mentally disturbed Arthur Fleck.
It’s difficult to decide whether or not we should compare this latest version of the Joker to others we’ve seen on screen before as portrayed by Jared Leto and Heath Ledger, who showed vastly different versions of the Joker. Warner Bros. and DC have made it very clear that “Joker” is a stand-alone film separate from the DC Extended Universe and, to some degree, I think we should keep them separated. However, I can’t help but compare the dramatic and career-enhancing performances of both Phoenix and Ledger as the Joker.
Going into the theatre, donning my Ledger inspired makeup on Halloween night, I figured Ledger was going to hold on to the unofficial title of best on-screen criminal mastermind. Little did I know Phoenix would come in swinging with a performance far beyond the familiar depiction of the Joker.
Phoenix gave a dramatic performance as a man living with a severe case of psychosis that, through a series of unfortunate events, are heightened. I am going to try to keep the spoilers to a minimum because what I really want to focus on for this article is Phoenix’s outstanding performance and the director cues that portrayed him as a complete outcast.
What makes this film so unique is the attention to detail on how extreme mental illness can affect a person. I hesitate in saying that this film is a true and realistic depiction of the Joker, but if we ask ourselves, “Who is the Joker?” I would say broadly he is a psychopath who kills people for personal gain with laughter instead of remorse.
That is exactly what we see in Fleck — maybe not at first, but we’ll get there.
Fleck might not be the smartest guy in the room, but he generally knows what’s right and wrong. The bad luck for Fleck is that he’s reaching the early stages of extreme psychosis, and, with government funding cuts, he is left to deal with the stress and anxiety of mental illness all on his own.
Not only that, but he loses everything he’s ever known or cared for, starting with the loss of his job. It becomes one big stream of bad luck, and as the story progresses, Fleck is no longer taking his medication, he is no longer seeing a social worker and he has literally lost everything that gave him hope. Even though some of the things that gave him hope were completely hallucinated, to Fleck, it was real.
Phoenix portrays exactly how anyone with mental illness would react to that sort of luck. We see the physical and psychological transition from being heavily medicated to losing hope to finally accepting his internal darkness.
Toward the end of the film, where all the action happens, we see Fleck literally transitioning into what he believes will bring him happiness and, more importantly, laughter. As Fleck becomes the Joker, he is no longer in denial of his dark thoughts and accepts the Joker as the embodiment of a new revengeful life.
Now, I want to keep in mind that Phoenix’s character in “Joker” is supposed to be set before the Joker officially reigns as the master prankster and nemesis of Batman. This is where I’m really having trouble deciding whether or not we should compare other Joker storylines to this one. If we compare it to other storylines, we see problems with the timelines, family members that never existed and a comedy career that never really happened.
However, whether or not we accept the comparisons between Fleck’s story and other Jokers, this film shows exactly what happens (as the Joker says on the Murray Franklin Show) “when you cross … a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash.”