TIFF Review: ‘Joker’ Is Unsettling from Start to Finish

Todd Phillips directs the origin story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) becoming the famous Batman villain in Joker. It all starts with him just wanting to make people laugh by working as a clown and trying to pursue a career in comedy only to evolve into something much darker after a series of unfortunate events.

Arthur is a unique character from the start

Joaquin Phoenix in 'Joker'
Joaquin Phoenix in ‘Joker’ Courtesy of TIFF

Arthur is a unique character from the start. That’s because he suffers from a condition where he uncontrollably laughs in what seems to be stressful situations. We’re quick to see how this condition has alienated him from other people in society.

That’s not the only condition that affects Arthur’s life. Phoenix lost a lot of weight for the role and we see his body throughout the film. We know he’s mentally unwell given he writes things like the “worst thing about mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t” in his journal.

The one person Arthur is close to is his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy.) However, this relationship isn’t fulfilling and so he tries to reach out to people like a woman in his building named Sophie (Zazie Beetz.)

The violence in the movie doesn’t feel like one of your average comic book movie

The movie feels relentless in that Arthur’s problems only keep building with time. When the turning point for Arthur happens you understand why he snaps and yet it’s still frightening.

That’s because the violence in the movie doesn’t feel like one of your average comic book movie. It’s loud, gory, and scary.

The thriller typically sticks to a darker tone but there are a few rare moments of humor. Viewers are mostly taken on a journey through the main character’s mind. That leads to some surreal moments that keeps the audience questioning what they’re seeing.

The movie could play into a harmful talking point

Phoenix does a wonderful job bringing the villain to life. There are multiple times where he has to carry a scene by himself and he does so very well. This is also credit to the director who knows how to frame Arthur the best way to tell this story.

The movie centering this character’s origin story also provides a different perspective on Gotham and who is ruining it. This is where the movie starts laying ground for where the character will go.

Joker‘s plot could play into the harmful talking point that those who are mentally ill are violent. This is a narrative despite the fact that studies found those with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators of it.

The movie does avoid diagnosing Arthur, which helps avoid stigmatizing a specific type of illness. However, it’s uncomfortable to think that some might link the two together by how all of the characters suffering from mental illness are framed.

Another unsettling aspect of the movie is how the world responds to the Joker in the end. I won’t spoil it but it’s hard to imagine that some in the real world won’t respond the same way and that’s a scary thought.

There’s no doubt that Joker will make a lot of money and many will praise the good qualities of the movie. However, it’s not a fun watch given the nature of the story and is therefore different from the previous versions of the character before this.

Joker will be released in theaters on Oct. 4, 2019.