Don’t Miss Joker

I seldom go to the movies anymore as I nearly always leave underwhelmed. There have been exceptions in recent years—The Martian, Birdman—but in general the most hallowed films out of Hollywood (modern ones, anyway) don’t resonate with me at all. They’re more confusing and alienating than anything else. How is it that so many people found so much to like about Moonlight, for example? or Green Book? To that list I’ll add Carol, The Hateful Eight and, last and certainly least, The Big Short. Nor was I particularly grabbed by Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. I don’t know why I keep giving Tarantino more chances to impress me; I suppose it’s because Pulp Fiction really is that good. Anyway, Once Upon a Time … was the first and, until the other night, I think only film I ventured out to the cinema to go and see this year.

The second was Joker, about which I first heard a week or two ago. My initial reaction was dismissal and mild annoyance. Another confounded comic book movie—directed by the director of The Hangover, no less. The last time I went to see a superhero movie it was 2008, I was eighteen, and everyone around me was talking about the best thing they’d ever seen, something called The Dark Knight. So I went with a friend to a packed cinema in Niagara Falls and watched the new Batman film, and shrugged. The obsession with Heath Ledger’s performance was, again, confusing—especially given it wasn’t restricted to teenagers. He’s only playing the Joker, after all: a silly comic book creation that, until then, hadn’t ever been taken seriously. Jack Nicholson had clearly had fun with the role, understanding that he wasn’t doing anything of artistic import. While I maintain that Ledger’s performance was and is overrated, propelled to its sanctified status by his sudden death, I’ll grant now that we owe him a debt of gratitude: were it not for his hyper-committed rendering of the Joker, the best film I’ve seen in years likely would not have been made at all, or, if it was, would have been approached from a very different angle.

Martin Scorsese recently found himself the object of comic-book-fan fury after contending that Marvel movies are not real cinema, likening them to theme parks for good measure. Far be it from me, or anyone else, to impugn Marty’s take—who knows more about these things than the director of Goodfellas and Raging Bull? At any rate, his sentiment is my sentiment: superhero movies are schlock, mere distraction at the very most. We can go further and say they’re a travesty, considering how much they cost to make and that they have no cultural or aesthetic worth. Half a million Americans are sleeping on the street, and Marvel Studios is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to produce The Avengers. It’s the height of decadence in our New Gilded Age.

I mention Scorsese because it wasn’t until I heard that Joker makes reference to two of his finest films—the inimitable Taxi Driver and the overlooked (but maybe not anymore) King of Comedy—that I thought it might be worth seeing. Finally swaying me was the unfolding debate over its treatment of violence, plus the usual denunciations of its problematic racial content, mostly by white critics who seem to think they can shed themselves of the “privilege” they so hate by locating and condemning it everywhere. Clearly there was something to this Joker. The thing had to be seen.

That Joker is not a comic book or superhero movie is apparent from the opening shot, which zooms slowly in on a wretched and gaunt Joaquin Phoenix sitting in front of a mirror applying his clown makeup, crying. It was at this point, less than a minute in, that the Vietnamese in the audience (I’m writing from Saigon) lost interest, brought up as they are on the aforementioned theme park movies. It was amusing to observe their boredom. Cell phone screens lit up, trips to the bathroom were frequent, and, after twenty or thirty minutes, the walkouts commenced. Meanwhile I was engrossed by Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck, a miserable outcast with more drug prescriptions than friends, plus a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably in the most inappropriate contexts. When a woman on the bus tells him to stop bothering her small child, Arthur, who was only trying to amuse the boy, bursts into a fit of horrible laughter, eventually handing the woman a card explaining his affliction. (If I were a film critic I would be obliged for some reason to tell you that this woman is black, and also that Arthur is physically attacked by a group of ethnic minorities in beginning of the film.)

I’ll keep the plot summary brief. Arthur is a failed clown and aspiring stand-up comic who lives with a woman he believes is his mother. He suffers from various mental illnesses, takes seven different medications and feels he needs more, doesn’t appear to eat, keeps a tortured diary, and demands to know why the people around him aren’t kinder to each other and to him. He also admires late night talk show host Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro, who played deranged, self-styled comic Rupert Pupkin in King of Comedy (in that film De Niro’s character was infatuated with late night talk show host Jerry Langford, played by Jerry Lewis). Like Pupkin, Arthur fantasizes about appearing on his favorite talk show and being embraced by its host. He also fantasizes about other things, including a romance with his neighbor and, possibly, the shocking violence he eventually commits.

Bad as things are, they grow worse still when slashes in public spending make it impossible for Arthur to obtain his medicine. And he’s fired by the Ha-Ha clown agency after a gun he was given by a colleague drops from his pocket and falls to the floor during a gig at a children’s hospital (there’s a good dose of pitch-black humor in Joker). As he leaves his workplace for the last time, he bashes the time clock off the wall and strikes the words “Forget To” from a sign reading “Don’t Forget To Smile.” Prior to being fired, Arthur has a fateful altercation with a trio of obnoxious yuppies on the subway; they jump him and he clumsily shoots them dead. An eyewitness tells police the killer was dressed as a clown, and soon disaffected denizens of “Gotham” (but really New York) begin demonstrating in the streets wearing clown masks while tabloids present the killer as a vigilante hero. Arthur, for the first time in his life, realizes that he exists. “And people are starting to notice,” he tells the social worker assigned to his case.

Joker is, among other things, an allegory of contemporary American society, though set in the ‘80s. Thomas Wayne, a wealthy Wall Street type with whom Arthur’s delusional mother claims to have been intimate, and who Arthur later believes is his father, is running for mayor of Gotham. Asked by an interviewer about the clown-themed demonstrations, Wayne characterizes the protesters as a lot of losers and declares that he’s only the one who can save their souls. Wayne is less a sendup of Trump than a symbol, and indictment, of neoliberal class politics (embodied in real life by people like the Clintons, Chuck Schumer, Mitch McConnell, et al). Arthur’s murder of the yuppies on the subway, and the popular celebration of it, is likewise symbolic of a general uprising and mobilization against the prevailing state of affairs, a system that hangs people like Arthur Fleck out to dry and, ultimately, invites revolution.

There’s not much subtlety in Joker’s thesis, and that’s fine. Nothing about this film is subtle. It is, however, all true, meaning it communicates truths about humanity in general and American society in particular. Phoenix’s performance, while careful and impassioned, is experimental—Todd Phillips, whose direction is terrific, gave him a lot of latitude and he made sure to use every inch of it. Phoenix throws the reality of severe mental illness into sharp relief and forces the audience to confront it. He laughs, cries, dances, beats inanimate objects, crawls into his own refrigerator. It’s not easy to watch all this suffering. Really, it’s not until Arthur completes his metamorphosis from passive victim to confident murderer and agent of chaos (from human to something slightly more than human) that we start to feel comfortable with him and with the film. Which reflects the degree to which we have become conditioned to violence in our culture, both real and imagined. But to argue that Joker exploits this very American condition is wrongheaded. It would be more accurate to say that the film exposes it and, in so doing, asks us to contemplate it. Many critics are evidently unwilling to do that.

As to the argument that Joker is “irresponsible,” “toxic” and “dangerous,” that it could inspire real acts of violence—it’s hardly worth responding to. A perverse mind can be corrupted or incited by anything, however innocuous. Let’s not forget that after shooting John Lennon, Mark David Chapman handed the police a copy of The Catcher in the Rye and said: “This is my statement.”

The finale of Joker is an exhilarating triumph of action and style. The violence is intense and effective; the build-up to it is expertly handled. In a flash the mood and tone of the film are flipped upside down: Arthur, having transformed himself into the Joker, twirls around to “Rock & Roll Part 2.” He appears on national television and, upon railing against a sick society that permits the haves to trample upon the have-nots with impunity, launches a populist revolution by firing a bullet into his hero’s head. Now Arthur Fleck is the hero. The question of whether or not this really happens is immaterial, just as it’s immaterial to Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, both of which end on similar notes. I was also reminded of Lindsay Anderson’s If …, a work of cinematic genius that could never be made today. Ambiguity is a key device in all of the forgoing films: the answer to any mystery provoked therefrom is less interesting than the mystery itself. Joker is not Taxi Driver, true enough. But it is the most impressive new movie I’ve seen in years—and might go some way in restoring my faith in contemporary cinema. Who would’ve thought?

Michael Howard’s essays and short fiction have appeared in a wide variety of print and digital publications, Dissident Voice among them. He lives in Vietnam. Read other articles by Michael.