Does Joker hold a critical mirror up to modern, male violence or wallow in it?
Well. Here we are. I actually saw this movie a while ago. I just didn’t feel like wading into the shit storm of social controversy surrounding it until I absolutely had to. With one week to go until the Oscars, I guess it’s time to dive in.
I’m of two minds on Joker. I think as a film, it works on a craft level, is well acted, and engaging as a tragic drama. As a social artifact, my feelings are murkier. Todd Phillips’ film does explore some of the sparks that have created the raging trash-fire of white, male lone-wolf shooters. Unfortunately, it does more to fetishize than to explain. By not acknowledging the difficult aspects of the story, Joker misses being an unbiased study of a troubled character.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives alone with his aging mother and works a gig job as a rent-a-clown. All he wants to do is make people laugh, but more often than not he winds up being the butt of the joke. When a lack of social ties, personal betrayal, and constant aggression from those around him push Arthur too far, he lashes out against the world in the persona of the murderous Joker.
I found Joke to be consistently engaging. Joaquin Phoenix gives another gripping character study. The supporting cast is strong, though not given much time – Zazie Beetz and Robert Deniro’s characters are more events in Arthur’s life than people in it. There is an emotional relationship with Arthur and his mother (Frances Conroy)…which I’ll talk about in my thoughts on the film’s controversial aspects.
Todd Phillips keeps the film moving at a riveting pace. Known for comedies, it is striking how unrelentingly and grim the film’s atmosphere is. It works for Fleck’s story, as well as for a period piece capturing Gotham as a pre-clean-up version of New York City. The piece is grounded; if you stripped out any of the allusions to DC comics and Batman, you’d still have a visceral story. A familiar story, perhaps…
So, first off: Is Joker just a rehash of Taxi Driver with plot beats from The King of Comedy? I have a hard time saying it’s not incredibly similar to those two films. So much of those films is repurposed in Joker, it’s hard to not see the pilfering…or homage if you’re being generous.
Second: is Joker an elegy for toxic, male aggression of the ilk that spawns mass shootings like clockwork? I think Phillips and Joker really wanted to be a reflection of that phenomenon instead of an ode to it. Unfortunately, not enough care is taken to avoid turning empathy for Fleck into sympathy for him. The Joker has a history outside the film, and he’s incredibly popular as a counter-culture figure. Simply making Fleck the Joker is going to put many in the audience in his corner. And Fleck does horrible things that never get accounted for.
One thing that struck me was the unreflective violence towards women. Arthur feels betrayed by his parents: his mentally ill mother and his supposed father, billionaire Thomas Wayne. Arthur murders his mother; Wayne is killed by somebody else emulating Joker. Likewise, Arthur kills his girlfriend, played by Zazie Beetz. Why? She never mistreats him, and is indeed the only island of sympathy he has. She gets the same treatment Fleck reserves for his abusive co-workers. He at least spares one of them, for treating him kindly. Why does the guy who was “nice” by not piling on spared yet the actually kind woman has to die?
I did not find Joker to be as off-putting as I expected. It engages, though a lot of that comes from a strong central performance and borrowed voltage from better movies. There were some nice nods to the film legacy of Batman and the Joker. Despite a very Scorsese-esque feel, the soundtrack is also tight and well deployed. Yet…
I think there were some major blind spots in the ethos behind the film, and a lot of the criticism stands. I want to believe that the intention was to show how you get a mass shooter type. There’s just too much baggage that comes along with it.
Mental illness rarely gets addressed to this degree…but if we’re supposed to empathize with Arthur for his illness, why are we then not asked to empathize with his mother, who also is mentally ill? If we are asked to understand the life of an isolated, put-upon guy, why do we get next to nothing about an isolated, put upon woman – one who as a single mother and black woman has a myriad more social pressures?
For most of the film, Joker remains a tragic exploration of mental illness and social isolation. Largely where the story is reusing elements from Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. When it moves past those beats, it outs itself as really in Arthur’s corner all along. The ending certainly elevates Joker into an object of worship for the masses – at least the white, middle class, disaffected male masses. It’s hard to see those cheering mobs in clown masks as anything but a stamp of approval. Society did wrong by ignoring the Arthur Flecks of the world. Violent, male rage wearing a fig leaf of class warfare is what it gets for this grave offense.