This review was originally published by Countercurrents: https://countercurrents.org/2019/10/joker-raises-quite-many-real-issues-sadly-only-to-skirt-them-on-its-way
I wanted to like Joker. I became a fan of all things Batman in middle school, when Batman: The Animated series was on reruns in India. Christopher Nolan’s masterful Batman trilogy sent me to the source material: the comics. In the hands of a string of writers, many of the Batman comics are first-class entertainment, while also engaging seriously with questions about the origins and nature of heroism, crime, and madness. From his first appearance in 1940 (within a year of Batman’s first appearance), the Joker has been Batman’s most compelling foe: a high honour, given Batman’s vibrant pantheon of villains. So, when I heard there would be a standalone Joker origin film – I was in. When I heard it would star Joaquin Phoenix – I was still more in. When I heard that the US Army had issued warnings about the possibility of mass-shootings at Joker screenings – I was glad I don’t live in a country with easy access to firearms. I wanted to like Joker.
And Joker wants to be liked. From the opening, in 1980s Gotham City, protagonist Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is hardsold to viewers as a by-the-numbers underdog. He has a brain disorder that makes him laugh and cry without warning; he also suffers hallucinations and delusions. He works as a clown, making money any way he can: holding up signposts for businesses, entertaining children in hospitals. He dreams of being a standup comic, but he’s carefully crafted as the unfunniest person on earth: while studying other comics, he laughs at the wrong bits, and in his solo stint on stage the only joke is that he can’t stop laughing (see: brain disorder). Fleck lives with his mother, whom he tenderly looks after; but even she is sceptical about his ambitions: “What makes you think you can do that? Don’t you have to be funny?” In the background, on the television, news plays about corporate greed and how bad things are getting for common people. (This is the era of the status-obsessed Wall Street parasites of American Psycho: a film on which Fleckand his diary-journal lean heavily.) But Fleck’s experience of the general suffering is particularly intense. He’s regularly targeted for beatings by strangers. He’s emaciated, like the mentally-disturbed protagonist of The Machinist (2004). A modern-day Christ who turns the other cheek, Fleck bears it all. Mother Penny (Frances Conroy) sums him up for us: she’s nicknamed him “Happy.”
In locating its protagonist’s sufferings in medical and social conditions, Joker set up two powerful premises of immense immediate relevance. The United States, of which Gotham was conceived (in Batman’s debut in 1939) as a dystopically skewed microcosm, is the only developed nation lacking universal healthcare; a nation where healthcare costs are skyrocketing even as people get sicker. Mental health services are in particular crisis: a long-festering crisis that has, unfortunately, only now reached public consciousness – arm-in-arm with the question of gun control, via the mass-shooting pandemic. But the fact that many mass-shooters are mentally disturbed is the tip of the iceberg. Calls to 911 regularly involve unrest related to mental illness; first-responders are ill-trained to handle the mentally-disturbed. The country’s overpopulated and ineffective penal system contains 1.2 million mentally ill who should be getting treated, not punished. The roots of crime in poverty and socioeconomic disparity are equally well-documented. The US has been for decades near the top of the list of countries with extreme income inequality. In 2019, things are still getting worse. In some senses, in some places, conditions are improving: but indignity and poverty continue to afflict millions in America (not to mention the rest of the world). Very early, Joker establishes its potential for powerful commentary on the roots of crime in mental illness and systemic injustice. But a few minutes into the film, as Fleck lies inert in a gray alley after his first unprovoked random-act-of-cruelty beating, JOKER sprawls across the screen, occupying it floor-to-ceiling in sunshine yellow. And you begin to doubt whether the film will live up to its enormous potential.
Don’t hold your breath. It doesn’t.
Joker spends most of its first two acts doing more of the same. Beating into our skulls the point that Arthur the underdog is a sick man, is doing his best, and only getting (literally) kicked for his pains. Everything that could possibly go wrong with him goes wrong. From the background, the television keeps reminding us that things keep getting worse.
It’s no spoiler to say that the family of Joker’s to-be nemesis, Bruce Wayne, enter the second act. (Brett Cullen plays Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father.) Again, like the news, the Waynes enter the story only peripherally: as faces of the rich-bastard club, as hammer-on-the-head reminders: ‘the rich are bastards and the poor are suffering.’ Joker offers an interesting speculation on Fleck’s origins: again setting up the stage for incisive analysis. Tragedy is a crucible in which both heroes and villains are born. What decides who comes out on the other side as hero, and who as villain? Again, an exciting opportunity arises for the kind of metaphysical reflections that made Nolan’s trilogy both blockbuster and timely thought-provoker. But, again, Joker squanders its potential to be thought-provoking, instead settling for another round of kicking in this black-and-white world.
The third act begins with Fleck discovering his origin, embracing his madness, and unleashing havoc on the city that has wronged him. The cinematography is as in-your-face as the scripting: Fleck’s transformation is heralded by a change of light. The first two acts, spilling over with Fleck’s sufferings, are low-lit. The third act begins with the sun shining brightly over Fleck’s right shoulder: as Fleck rises from the act with which he’s been born again, the camera catches a rainbow in the room: a single ray of sun splintered by a mote of dust into a prism. A poetic moment in service of a disturbing conceit: in a world without morals, only with an immoral act can we reinvent ourselves. From here on, as the violence escalates, the lighting stays bright, often sunny – right up until the dazzling-white final scene. The colour-palette, too, instantly brightens in the third act. Fleck enters in his iconic supervillain costume – here it is red, blue, and yellow. A palette of super-saturated primaries, perfect for a film that hasn’t heard of gray.
Whether of superheroes or athletes, supervillains or artists, origin stories are compelling for one reason. Choice. We enter into a character’s shoes, we feel their pains and their joys, we confront the choices that confront them. Joker presents its protagonist with no choice. A tedious parade of misfortunes has driven this man finally – mechanically, below the level of conscious choice – to violence. In his sufferings and in his ‘rise,’ Fleck is so alien that he is beyond understanding: his suffering is real but bizarrely overwrought; his inner world remains inaccessible to human empathy. And yet, we’re supposed to sympathise. The signs are unmistakable: our hero has arrived. He does bad things, and confesses that he doesn’t regret them. On the contrary: in a scene straight from the Breaking Bad pilot, Fleck reacts to his own bloody reclaiming of his masculinity with a burst of testosterone-induced sexual prowess. The system tried to break him, but now he’s broken out of it. Ironically, his view of success, and of what it means to be a man, he has inherited blindly from the very system that’s hurt him. Men are violent. Men win. Men get famous at any cost to themselves and to society. This is the ultra-capitalist motto that Fleck’s antagonists announced on television. This is what Fleck believes. Ironical? But Joker is a film free of ironical self-reflection: it offers us the Joker as the hero we need.
When I heard that Joker was under fire for feeding into the unfortunate and dangerous ‘incel’ movement, I was annoyed. ‘You can’t blame films for the acts of the disturbed or the criminal,’ I thought: ‘That sets us up for fascist book-burnings.’ But I changed my mind. I watched Joker on opening-day, in a hall full of young men. That’s not surprising: this is the demographic that comic-book films draw, especially outside India’s metros. When Fleck delivers his on-the-nose third-act speech of preemptive vindication, explaining why he’s going to do what he’s going to do just before he does it – to my horror, the hall erupted into cheers. (Just as, in 2012, during The Dark Knight Rises, the audience cheered when Batman exited retirement to enter the screen, on his jacked-up motorbike, mid-crime.) “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that treats him like trash?” asks Fletcher. “You get exactly what you deserve,” he answers himself, before committing his sixth murder. Cue: audience cheers. In this case, the cheers were brief, and perhaps only an expression of nonspecific joy: from viewers who’d come to be entertained and weren’t. But the cheers broke out again at two key moments: moments when anyone who takes the film seriously – and Joker takes itself dead seriously – can only watch in horror. The alternate hypothesis about the audience reactions remains: but so does the deeply disturbing possibility that many viewers will in fact take the Joker, just as the film does, for the figurehead of an overdue nihilist revolution. This figurehead is one too many of us unfortunately identify with: a lonely, mentally ill, sexually frustrated, underdog who’s lost his paltry healthcare, lost his last human connection, and has been kicked once too often. The fact that millions of people are suffering like this makes Joker’s treatment of its protagonist, and his ‘choices,’ so irresponsible.
Joker is chockful of on-the-nose references to landmarks in American cinema. To name a few: Modern Times, Taxi Driver, American Psycho, and Breaking Bad. To make sure we won’t miss the connection with another criminal (this one compelling and credibly the product of postwar trauma and of a society fragmented and decayed), Robert de Niro stars as talk-show host Murray Franklin, a potential father-figure for our disturbed, fatherless, virtually orphaned protagonist. But Joker’s bid to name-drop its way into the hall of fame falls short.
This review would be incomplete without mention of Phoenix’s virtuoso performance. In this remarkable but egregious film, Phoenix is Oscar-worthy. Numerous closeups invite us to study the face of this alien: this suffering alien, who breaks uncontrollably into a hyena-like cackle that becomes anguished crying before he finally chokes on his own voice. Other closeups capture Fleck’s reactions to yet another disappointment: his pale emaciated face stock-still, his deepset eyes burning embers of emotion. Scenes where Fleck celebrates his violence by conducting a string quartet – to music that’s only in his head – show the character’s liberation from the good-boy prison. Phoenix performs these scenes with the sublime abandon of genius, transforming the ridiculous into the chilling. Phoenix’s ability demands a better film.
So do the real issues we face today. Across the world, we face crises in living and working conditions, safety at home and outside, and the unprecedented threats of terrorism and climate change. We are suffering, but we have the ability to engage in dialogue. A dialogue that uses words, not guns. A dialogue that aims for better lives: not a dialogue of self-pitying polarising rhetoric that justifies mass murder.
Should you watch Joker? Yes. Unquestionably yes. Its flaws are severe. The issues it raises – and drops – are crucial: and perhaps the film will revinvigorate these crucial debates. But the best reason to watch Joker is for what is possibly the performance of a lifetime from a unique and underrated talent.
Did you watch Joker? What did you think of the film? Do you think art is responsible for any social unrest, or legitimacy to fringe groups, that it may provide? Should art reflect reality, or push us towards a more just world? Do you think this film draws attention to the problems of the mentally ill/other marginalised groups in a way conducive to social progress? Or does it just stir the pot? Does art have total moral licence — is freedom of the arts as fundamental to democracy as freedom of the press? Or should artists be responsible for what they say and how they say it?
Enter your email ID for weekly updates about new articles and stories.