Monday, May 20Royal Holloway's offical student publication, est. 1986

What can be said of the human mind? Todd Phillips’ Joker may have answers…

When Todd Phillips did a commentary of the opening scene of his film Joker for Vanity Fair (which was published on to YouTube), he explained that he was most proud of the overall tone of the film. Specifically, he referred to it as an ‘unsettling tone, that sort of slow, ramp-up into insanity…’ an insanity that perhaps many of us who have watched the film may be able to sympathise with; within reason of course.

Phillips explains that the unsettling nature of the film is deliberately manoeuvred, as well as carefully structured through camera movement and the staging of each scene, illustrating the isolation and the mania that the Joker feels within himself. Are we to argue that the feelings of separation from reality and the questioning of one’s sanity is not totally incomprehensible? Arthur Fleck (Joker) says, ‘for my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed… but I do’. The stigma of mental health makes most of society wonder whether it is normal to have these feelings of irregularity, where we as individuals fail to exist in life, as though nobody can understand one another. But if most of us have felt this seclusion, then surely this is something than should be spoken about extensively?

What I believe is most important about the narrative in this film is that Arthur Fleck, simply tries to feel normal, however those around him try to make it difficult. Although morally his actions that occur halfway through the film are unforgivable, they are spurred by his descent into madness. This is the film illustrating the sinister potential of untreated mental illness. Joker also questions the hypocrisy of society, a society that shuns someone like Arthur, but then celebrates the rich and famous. Does this mean that we as people will forgive callous acts performed by those more fortunate whilst punishing those less fortunate? The era in which the film is set, America in the 1980s, adds to the feeling of injustice as it alludes to the corruption that was rife at the time. Gotham is a primary setting of what we see through Arthur’s perspective as a cruel place to be in, a concept supported by the time period.

While I may not regard this film as the best of all time as some have said, it is certainly a film that deserves critical acclaim. Elements of the cinematography whilst artistic and triumphant, are unusual and uncomfortable in equal measure. A good example being the blue lighting in Arthur’s kitchen, which if we are to see from Phillips’ point of view, may be a deliberate decision to illustrate Arthur’s state of mind. The camerawork is well-constructed, and the angles provided in some of the scenes add to the sense of discomfort, especially the famously known as the Dutch angle.

An important theme of this film is the action of smiling, an indicator of apparent happiness. The dark world in which Arthur lives in causes him to struggle with happy emotions. This is juxtaposed by his tendency to contain laughter during inappropriate moments, a real and serious condition known as PBA (pseudobulbar affect). The condition he suffers with is primarily why he is mocked and adds to society’s prejudice of him, making him an easy target to belittle and torment. An example of this torment he is subjected to is when he is beaten up on the train by a bunch of Wall Street “yuppies”, who unintentionally provide the turning point in Arthur’s state of mind, forcing Arthur to shoot them. From his point of view, this could be regarded as self-defence This leaves Arthur feeling no remorse for killing them. By this point in the narrative, we as an audience through Arthur’s standpoint are made to understand his twisted morality.

Ultimately, what is particularly clever about this film is the pressure that we are subjected to from the beginning of the story. This tension grows bigger and bigger until we witness Arthur’s mind finally snap, and thus he becomes the masterful Joker. The result of his actions gets him sent to a mental institution. Some might say is rightfully so, but this still indicates that he is a victim, a victim of a corrupt environment. Therefore, society has failed him. Another question we must ask then in result of his actions: would Arthur have spiralled into the madness if he were not abused by his stepfather, failed by the system or had a delusional adoptive mother? Would he then be regarded as “normal”?

Overall, this film gets these ratings for the following:

Cinematography: 9/10

Narrative: 8/10

Themes: 8/10

Perception: 9/10