“Is it just me, or it’s getting crazier out there?” is the opening statement by Arthur Fleck, also one of The Joker’s proverbial signature quotes. And it’s probably the sentence that captures the cultural moment better than anything else.
Spoilers ahead. Read at your own risk, or, you know.
I left the cinema profoundly touched by this movie. Stirred.
This is an Art film, capital A, where all the departments shine with technical mastery: direction, cinematography, soundtrack (another impressive and haunting score by Hildur Guðnadóttir (Arrival, Sicario, The Revenant, Chernobyl, wow!) and of course acting. Joaquin Phoenix stands out towering – the movie is literally made around him, camera glued to him as he literally gives flesh to the character with his voice, every muscle of his face, his teeth, his entire body – but all the performances are solid across the board.
It has been said that “Joker” takes more than one page from the early Scorsese‘s book, who was involved in earlier stages of the production. Parts are an open homage to “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” (with the interesting detail that De Niro is now in what was Jerry Lewis’ role).
And yet, this story is fully set in the world created by comics, it fully belongs in that universe and continuity. It’s Gotham City and its lore. I appreciated it as another step in affirming comics as a definite art form which can be a powerful mirror to look into our soul. It reminded me of “Logan“, in that sense. And certainly not of Marvel’s cinecomics.
All the time I felt deep compassion and empathy for the main character, he is clearly a victim and despite all the evidence around him, he wants to keep carrying on, a simple mission in life, to bring a smile on people’s face.
It’s possible that as a (bad? the imposter syndrome is always lurking) comedian, this was even more personal for me. I grew up in the 80s, in a decaying metropolitan area. I was completely immersed in the story. And of course when Arthur finally reacted against all the wrong and oppression around him, I felt a strong emotional response. One that I am still processing. Was I rooting for the “hero”, or for violence? Was it because it felt justified? Was it because part of me identifies with the perpetrators, more than with the victim?
I appreciate a piece of art that is able to touch me so deep, where it’s uncomfortable. I am still unsure on some parts and I will need to watch it again, I can’t fully close in on how “society” is portrayed as the Big Enemy. The only bit I find potentially dangerous is to throw all the blame on “the system”. The “fuck the system” narrative has some nasty implications. What if people take it to the letter? Joker, for example?
But then again, this is just one particular story. Arthur Fleck really has the table rigged against him. He lies on the deep bottom, and without any form of support, probably that’s how the world can look like. Hostile and unaccessible.
All the promise of happiness out there? Not for him. “Joker” made me also reflect on privilege, how many layers are there, sometimes without me even acknowledging it.
And there is the other big topic in the background, mental illness. “The worst thing about having a mental condition is that people expect you to behave as if you don’t”, Arthur writes in his journal, it’s intended as a joke but of course people don’t find it funny at all.
How must it feel, not being able to trust one’s thoughts, memories, reflexes – in a world that always expects perfection, performance and predictability? It’s another layer in which this film moves, subtly (or not), but in interesting ways.
“Joker” brutally unmasks the hypocrisy we surround ourselves with, summarized by the lyrics of Smile:
Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through for you
Except, for some people the sun never shines.
In the end, for Arthur it becomes clear that there is no other salvation possible than in the company of others like him: the rejects, the other faceless “clowns”, as Thomas Wayne described them. And as he goes down in his spiral, he finally accepts his fate as he turns into what he was maybe destined to be: the Clown Prince of Gotham. The only way to become “someone” and be seen will be to lead an army of faceless rejects. It’s the universal story of Lucifer: “better to reign in hell, than to serve in heaven“.
I found the ending perfect, satisfying, final. The long studio interview was so tense I was holding my breath the entire time. The entire sequence is perfect, right to the end. What a brilliant idea, to have Arthur mutate into The Joker and debut live on national television. It makes perfect sense, like “A star is born”, but evil! I was ecstatic.
I left the cinema really shook up, and it didn’t happen to me for a while, certainly not in a “comics movie”.
Something on the commentary and the cultural impact.
The movie is out, and the discussion got hot. Besides the Golden Lion and an 8-minutes standing ovation at Venice, critics got divided, while audiences seem to mostly love it – some for very different reasons than others, apparently. The New York police have issued warnings before the screenings, and apparently the story provides too much material to the alt-right trolls and incels who could find reasons to explode into violent acts.
Is it true? Does the film pander too much to the disenfranchised and the hopeless, providing too easy an excuse to justify their violence? Does such an argument even make sense? Is a movie (or comics, or videogame) the problem, or is the pressure that makes people snap? Should we expect so much from a film, after all a piece of art and entertainment, while clearly we don’t apply the same high moral standards for – say – our world leaders?
I have a number of issues with this reasoning
and who cares anyway.
First of all, “Joker” is a movie about a victim. Arthur Fleck is a reject, he is the ultimate target of violence and abuse, physical, mental and emotional. To identify “victims” with the “alt-right” or even worse the “incels” only looks at one aspect of a bigger problem, and exposes a big blind spot that some commenters seem to have – to give for granted that these people are the only ones who will identify with the story. It also means to admit that these groups are victims of society, after all, so their frustration is right after all, but we are not willing to do much about it. We shouldn’t represent their situation, we shouldn’t even talk about it – lest they get angry, and god forbid that.
As my friend Ian put it in the comments, “All the people [Arthur] reaches out to – to receive love from or to receive acceptance and be validated by are the ones who then betray him, hurting him the most”. Exactly. This is not a story about a terrorist unleashed in society. This is a story about how to avoid to have more terrorists in society. Thanks, Ian.
The character’s ethnicity – let me say it at the beginning, so it’s out of the way. Yes, the man who becomes “The Joker” (an archetypal figure transcending ethnicity, age and gender) starts off as a white man. But, for me, that’s secondary. The fact is that he suffers from terrible violence, and all the perpetrators are white men in positions of power, who exercise their privilege forcing it down on him. Critics have different points of view on this and they are entitled to their opinion of course, but for me “Joker” is a universal story representing systemic violence of white men (think Thomas Wayne) against victims, all victims.
It’s an anti-capitalist cautionary tale if there ever is one: Fleck starts spiralling down when all forms of support are taken away from him, in the name of profit, budget cuts and social expectations.
Third and finally, Art is meant to provoke reflections on human nature, and sometimes to divide us. When we try to force our political expectations into a piece of art, we are limiting its scope, while just expressing our confirmation biases. Nobody gets elevated or enriched by that.
Yes, “Joker” is a violent story (but no more than, say, “The Killing Joke“). Although not a lot of violence is represented, when it erupts, it’s inevitable, brutal and shocking. Which I think is precisely the point there. Take your average Avengers movie: in the final battle where superheroes fight thousands of aliens and entire cities get leveled down, you can assume a lot more death and devastation, but you don’t see it. You are not exposed to the blood spatters on the wall.
In “Joker”, you are. This is crucial, and it’s the reason why The Avengers is comforting and reassuring, while “Joker” is so disturbing. It’s meant to be.
It’s a journey into a very disturbed mind, that tries desperately to cling to sanity and hope but descends into chaos blow after blow. It’s not supposed to “make sense” – as anyone barely familiar with the character and its development would know. That’s the essence of The Joker: it’s the devil inside, it’s pure chaos, simple and twisted at the same time, innocent and pure evil. The more you try to define it, the more it defies definition.
This is not a story meant to reassure us and leave us comforted while we drive back to our safe home. On the contrary: it’s a brutal mirror pointed to our face, one that forces very uncomfortable questions.
Where are we positioned, in the story?
Are we Thomas Wayne? Or Alfred, here little more than hired muscle: busy protecting his master’s gate for a salary, too busy to wonder if what happens behind it is right or wrong? Are we Arthur’s mother, a victim herself, too weak and deluded to lift a finger to prevent more violence on an innocent child? The brutal impresario, a reject who bullies his employees to assert his position as first-of-the-last in the social order? Are we the innocent Bruce Wayne, who will grow up inevitably scarred by the violence he witnesses? Are we De Niro’s Murray Franklin, the star of the show, willing to tell other people’s stories and maybe to laugh at them, to gain status and success?
There are so many lenses through which to look at this film. I am grateful it was made and I don’t think I will forget it soon.
Did we need it, and did we need it now? I think the answer is a yes. And besides, did we need “Clockwork Orange“, “Taxi Driver“, “Natural Born Killers“? Sometimes a story just investigates a darker area of our soul, one that (thankfully) we don’t get to explore in real life. I think that’s a very positive thing. And besides, was there ever a time when violence and marginalization were not present – and urgent – in society? The 70s were certainly not such a time.
Art has many functions, and one of them is to provoke us. As I said, I am happy “Joker” left me disturbed and unsettled. Guilty, even. People will react to it in different ways, sure. We can’t control it, and I think we shouldn’t. Even “The Matrix” has been culturally appropriated by the alt-right, with all their talk about red pills.
This is not a political movie, said director Todd Phillips, and it’s hard for us to believe him; but so says also The Joker himself while giving Murray Franklin his uh, final interview. It’s not political in the sense that it doesn’t take a stand. It shows a very uncomfortable story and leaves us alone to deal with it. How inconvenient, eh?
If we stop telling stories of demons and dragons, it won’t make them disappear. What leaves people unsettled about this particular story is that there is no positive resolution, no voice-over like in “Fight Club” or “The Wolf of Wall Street” with a moral lesson coming at the end.
To be fair, there is a spark of hope at the end of the tunnel: the movie suggests that in that very same night when The Joker is born, Batman is also created. Thesis and antithesis, poison and antidote. Only, who is who?
Will things get better, in the end? Please tell us that they will, we beg the storyteller. We feel so afraid and powerless.
But “Joker” leaves us hanging. There is no relief there. It suggests that things have to get worse, before they can (maybe) get better. Is it a political commentary about our present times? Does it make any sense at all? Or is it just trolling us?
Well guess what, sometimes that’s how things go.
And that’s life (end credits).