Joker (2019) Director: Todd Phillips
“Is it me, or is it getting crazier out there?”
This stripped down, harrowing character study takes place amidst the backdrop of a bleak, cold, and grey Gotham City. A sorrowful loner named Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) trudges through life working as a for-hire clown at a staffing agency, though he privately aspires to be a stand-up comedian. He is regularly disrespected, robbed, and beaten while on the job. Arthur is a former mental patient, while now being treated by a social services therapist –he has been prescribed seven different medications to cope with daily life. However, day after day Arthur meets nothing but calloused and unpleasant people throughout a crowded city filled with trash, rats, crime, and graffiti. At the end of the day, he often checks his mail but nothing ever arrives. Living in a tiny broken-down, crime-riddled flat with his mother, Arthur’s only joy seems to come from watching late-night television, particularly a variety hour talkshow hosted by a Johnny Carson figure named Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). As he watches the show, Arthur imagines Murray as a benevolent father figure of sorts.
The tragic pity is laid on thick in this film. It is almost a direct re-imagining of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, with more than a dash of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange mixed in. However, Joker’s narrative is a challenge to disentangle because we witness the harrowing life of Arthur through his own perspective, and he regularly proves himself to be an unreliable narrator. Not unlike other examples of the Joker character (Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Jared Leto, Heath Ledger), Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal is also deliberately ambiguous. Assuming we accept Arthur’s own backstory, he was apparently the victim of brutal childhood abuse which caused him to experience frequent periodic fits of involuntary laughter.
One day, following a neighborhood beating by some street ruffians, a friend and co-worker gives Arthur a gun. It accidentally falls out of his clown costume while he is at the hospital entertaining sick children (singing “when you’re happy and you know it”) and thus he is fired from his job and grows increasingly unhinged. Gradually, all his ties to community are severed. Tragically, amidst continuing public funding cuts throughout the city, Arthur’s therapist cancels her practice, and without any means of support, Arthur regularly develops growing delusional fantasies –in particular, he develops a stalking obsession with a neighbor who lives down the hall. His mother then suffers a health emergency and Arthur attempts to connect with the man he believes to be his father, Thomas Wayne –a rich businessman who is running an exploitative campaign for mayor. Apparently, Arthur’s mother once worked for Wayne Enterprises before she was unceremoniously fired. Both she and Arthur believe Wayne to be Arthur’s true father. However later, it is revealed that she was mentally ill and abused Arthur as a child. Perhaps she was delusional, but if so, then who is Arthur’s biological father? Do we believe his mother’s story? Could the Joker actually be the offspring of the Wayne family? At any rate, the Waynes are portrayed as wholly elitist, cynical, out of touch, stiff, upper-lip, snide, and pompous. Like others in the upper echelon of Gotham, Wayne looks down on citizens from his iron-barred mansion –he often derides ordinary citizens as “clowns” and “jokers.” One night on the metro, Arthur is confronted by a trio of drunken employees of Wayne Enterprises, and he is forced to shoot them all in self defense. The brutal murder is widely published and fanfare exponentially grows for the mysterious anonymous clown who murdered three upper-crust corporate shills in cold blood. The attack becomes a vague symbol of vigilantism and it inspires a revolutionary uprising in the city against the rich class elite businessmen (a la the “Occupy Wall Street” movement). Arthur is suspected by the police as the culprit but no arrest is made. He continues his daily life, and he even makes an attempt at his stand-up comedy routine, but his stage presence is awkward and off-putting, garnering minimal laughter. A video of his failed stand-up routine is picked up and mocked by Murray Franklin on his nightly show. Later, Arthur is actually invited onto the show and promptly driven over the edge. He appears in full clown make-up and angrily shoots Franklin Murray while decrying a horrendous society which has so painfully neglected people like him. His outcry is coupled with a string of horrendously shocking acts of violent revenge –he suffocates his mother and stabs to death a co-worker (who told some white lies which bolstered Arthur’s termination).
This story is, in some senses, an inversion of the Batman story. It provides a sympathetic view of a disturbed fatalist and how his sociopathic tendencies can emerge from within a broken culture, though I would argue it is not a defense of such people/acts. Both a hero (like Batman) and a villain (like the Joker) are examined as the mere product of an anarchic, indecent, disorderly, isolated, crime-rampant culture. The indictment here is placed on society, rather than on any individual. It makes for a dark and disturbing glimpse of alienation not as an aberration, but rather as the normal result of a city filled with decay and disrepair. Generally speaking, mainstream critics lambasted this film as a celebration of sociopathy. Upon its release, even the U.S. Army and FBI issued warnings of rising danger caused by the film, but thankfully nothing ever came of these warnings. Joker simply offers a means for understanding how and why people become unglued from broader society, though admittedly it is not a film for everyone, and not one I would eagerly return to in the immediacy. At the end, the Wayne family is murdered by a criminal clown inspired by the Joker, offering a new narrative on the origins of the Batman story. The Joker is no longer a one-dimensional character –he actually comes from somewhere, rather than sui generis. The film is intended to be an indictment of elites and a culture which has abandoned its most vulnerable people, a demographic which has been scapegoated by critics. Meanwhile explanations for unfolding social collapse typically blame things like movies, video games, books, artwork. All are very easy and lazy places to point the finger for our present-day woes.
The mood of distress is perfectly captured in Joker, and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is nothing short of astounding, it is impossible to look away as we watch him unravel. However, I can personally only handle so much pretentious, gritty, bleak, nihilism in one film. By the end, I was fatigued after an ongoing sense of unsettling foreboding and alarm, the audience feels entirely unsafe while watching this film. Joker was actually quite a departure for Todd Phillips, director of such college comedies as Road Trip, Old School, Starsky & Hutch, and The Hangover movies. Apparently, he feels that our culture simply cannot handle comedies anymore, owing to our present “woke cancel culture.” With the decline of comedy comes a rise in desolate emptiness, as Joker offers another origins story of a non-hero’s downfall –nothing inspiring, hopeful, or redemptive in this film.