Movie Review: Joker
Intersectionality between Counterculture and Social Determinants of Health
Some spoiler alert.
Two weekends ago, I went on a movie date to see the Joker movie. I was a bit apprehensive going in not because of the negative buzz it’s been getting lately (if anything, that just egged me on) but due to safety concerns especially those surrounding potential mass shootings. So I waited one week after the opening date and went with my husband, with the prospect of using him as a human shield should things go belly up. Also, I decided not to watch or read any reviews about the movie before going in, as I wanted to allow the story unfold before my very eyes, untainted by the opinions of others. A luxury you certainly won’t be getting if you are reading this review before going to see the movie.
I am glad I saw it. But let me just outrightly say that seeing this movie could leave you feeling disturbed. And because that feeling stayed with me even until now as I write this, I decided to find out exactly why. You cannot be ambivalent after seeing this movie; it’s the kind that makes you feel something for feeling’s sake. And I try to explain the whys below.
For me, I think it was so because you are not only given an insider-view into how evil operates but also how it originates. For as long as we have known Batman, we have known the Joker. And even though his name depicts something risible, this movie will quickly cure you of that notion. First, the storytelling was done well. For a while now, I have grown fatigued over American movies and its vapidity. There’s been so much reliance on CGI, violence, sex, nudity with little to no attention paid to telling a good story. A fix I now get by watching select Korean movies and dramas. Second, I think you’ll appreciate the storytelling if you were to only focus on the angle that we are being given a glimpse into the origins of Arthur Fletch’s self-destructive path.
There’s also the depiction of Gotham, especially its crumbling state, seediness, and grime. Something in you is stirred at the widening inequality between the haves and the have-nots, the privileged and the unfortunate ones, and those who do the treading and the downtrodden. Then there’s the cinematography and the background score. First, if you are not watching this movie on an IMAX or Dolby Digital cinema screen, then you are doing it all wrong. Because how else are you able to get that visually immersive and powerful and auricularly fluid experience? Hats off to Hildur Guðnadóttir for the film’s score. The theme song “Call me Joker”, which was performed on an electric cello instrument called the halldorophone (an instrument Hildur helped develop) is infused with several cadences of rage and disparity that sums up the life of Arthur Fletch.
As previously mentioned, we are used to Joker being an afterthought or an irritation that is given a few appearances in Batman and other movies, but believe me you will never forget this Joker. Joaquin Phoenix did a superb job channeling all of the other Jokers plus he birthed a new one which makes me doubt that it will easily be toppled by another person. Using method acting, he delivered his dialogue poignantly, nailed that Joker signature stagger, and infused his bit into the role via his body language, and deadpan mannerisms. For his character, rather than mirror the previous actors who portrayed Joker, Joaquin based his character on an actual disorder called the Pseudobulbar Affect (PBA); a rare neurological and invisible illness that causes an involuntary and uncontrollable reaction of laughter and crying. Inadvertently, Joaquin, through his character raises awareness about the burden of this medical condition. Sincerely, I did not think anyone else could match Heath Ledger’s performance as Joker but I dare say that Joaquin has solidified his positioning in my heart as the best Joker in the DC universe. Even if he doesn’t win the Oscar, which I am suspecting he won’t, he will never be forgotten for his role.
The biggest theme in this movie was mental illness and its impact on not just the individual but society. And I think this very central theme is what is dividing critics as to whether or not to like this movie. There’s an argument that the movie’s heavy portrayal of mental illness, especially sufferers who descend willingly into madness, could be a great educational tool in understanding the makings of a murderer. A counterargument is how the movie did not do a good job in disassociating itself from the worn-out and destructive Hollywood trope of linking mental illness with violence. Depending on what side of the line you fall in, we can all agree that we need to give mental illness a deeper and serious look. Because we are all affected, either directly or indirectly, we ought to prioritize addressing these issues proactively. As a scientist, these issues hit home for me given that my research addresses health disparities and social determinants of health. Arthur’s life was tortured from the start and it seems he could never get a break, not at home, work, or even on the streets. If he grew up well-adjusted and less misanthropic, it would seem that would have been the miracle. His early childhood experiences all made for a perfect recipe for disaster as explained through the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study.
The ACEs Study, which was a collaboration between Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, addresses potentially traumatic experiences that occur to people under the age of 18. The ACEs quiz contains a total of ten questions and higher scores on the quiz have been linked to increased odds of risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential, and early death. There are three levels to consider when looking at ACEs: the family, community, and governmental levels. At the family level, relationships are the principal driving force of early child development and with an absentee father and a mentally unstable mother, Arthur had no soft-landing. At the community level, we see a broken-down system that is Gotham. Finally, a lackadaisical and understaffed social welfare system and poor housing policies give you a glimpse of the governmental level.
In one of his diary entries, Joker wrote:
“The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you DON’T.”
And I think this line is where we all need to take a collective, introspective pause, especially on restructuring how we talk about and address mental illnesses. Just for fun, I took the ACEs quiz on behalf of Mr. Fletch and he scored a whopping 8 or 9 (the film did not make it clear whether or not he was physically hit by his mom) out of 10. Now the quiz is not all-encompassing and so should be carefully interpreted due to two big limitations. First, not everyone with high ACEs scores go on to become a menace to society and then second, the scores do not take into account other modifying factors like resilience built from overcoming adversity as well as close interrelationships a child might encounter growing up, say a loving grandparent, trusted friend, or an affectionate and affirming teacher.
All in all, this movie was heavier and darker than other Joker movies, and for me, filled a lot of loose parts especially in the origins of Joker and his questionable consanguinity with Bruce Wayne. At the end of the movie, I saw the Joker for who he truly was — a man who intentionally descend into madness with just the right catalyst provided by his internal and external environments. If society makes villains and the villains make heroes, it may be safe to say that Thomas Wayne created the world that made the Joker who then went on to create the world that made the Batman. It is a movie with no super-heroes, no happy ending. Instead, it is a psychopath drama that seemed a bit too real. Perhaps, that’s where our discomfort and feeling of being unhinged about this movie stems from. To that, I say, that’s life. To end this, I borrow a line from Joker when he said: “I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.” I hope that this review makes more cents than my other posts.