Well-crafted 'Joker' explores the trauma of an individual, not a nation

JOAQUIN PHOENIX as Arthur Fleck in Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and BRON Creative’s tragedy “JOKER,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Photo: Warner Bros.)

3.5 out of 5 Stars
Todd Phillips
Writers: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz
Genre: Drama, Crime
Rated: R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images

SALT LAKE CITY (KUTV) – Synopsis: Arthur Fleck, a marginalized man with residual mental trauma who lives with his mother, becomes increasingly unstable when budget cuts keep him from being able to receive counseling and prescribed medications.

Review: Arthur Fleck works for a company that provides street clowns for businesses looking to grab a little attention along the packed streets of Gotham. He’s eccentric, an outcast even among his marginalized face-painting peers. His days are spent in daydreams and his nights are spent watching Murray Franklin’s variety show with his mother. Sometimes he talks with an appointed counselor who Arthur believes doesn’t listen to him and only goes to ensure that he can refill his seven drug prescriptions. He longs for a romantic relationship with the woman who lives down the hall, but his awkward nature masks any attempt he makes to engage with her. It is a lonely, isolated life.

However, it is a darker past that ultimately propels Arthur’s journey to becoming Joker. The here and now certainly has an influence, but his behavior is tied to events the audience never sees.

“Joker” is being framed by some as a film that strives to make sense out of the violence that surrounds us. It isn’t that kind of film. It may be more realistic than most comic book films, but it still presents an extreme backstory that keeps Joker from being a relatable everyman character. His psychosis is a supervillain trope, not an effective metaphor for something larger. That’s not to say there aren’t lessons to be learned from the film or that there aren’t conversations the movie can help start. If society wants to blame mental illness for mass shootings, we need to look at the options for help that are given to those who are ill. This is a topic that “Joker” approaches, but never completely explores.

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If you’re looking for a masterpiece of cinema that features Joaquin Phoenix starring as a traumatized protagonist with a penchant for violence, you’ll need to look to Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here.” “Joker” just doesn’t quite measure up to that standard.

Is “Joker” a dangerous film that encourages revolt? I don’t think so. It does presents the great divide between the classes and the hardships that even the most benevolent politicians and philanthropists fail to grasp. But there is no random nature to the targets of Joker’s violence. He is not espousing an ideology. His anger is a direct response to the cruelty he has been directly given. Arthur is a man searching for kindness in a world that isn’t interested in giving it to him. The message here is that empathy, not apathy or disdain for those who are different, will make a positive difference in this world.