I just watched the movie “Joker” and it’s clear this is one that will be in my head for a few days as I try to figure it out. I don’t know whether this is one of the best or one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.
If you haven’t seen it yet, be warned. Spoilers ahead.
Early on, we see that the main character is an extremely unreliable narrator, fading from his miserable existence into delusional fantasies in which he is treated with kindness and admiration for his dreams.
The City of Gotham is a character in itself, a gritty, seedy place right out of of Martin Scorsese films from the 1970s. Corruption has taken such root that piles of trash sit on every street corner, attracting not just regular rodents but “super rats.” It’s as if the city is a rotting corpse.
Even Batman’s father, Thomas Wayne, who we’ve seen portrayed as kind-hearted and noble in other stories, is an asshole who insults the people he claims to want to help, calling them clowns after Joaquin Phoenix’s mentally disturbed Alfred Fleck shoots three drunk and obnoxious Wayne Enterprises banker types who taunt and assault him on a Subway.
Impoverished, disenfranchised city folk celebrate the killer clown as a hero for rattling the cage keeping them separated from extremely wealthy captains of industry. At first shaken by the incident, Fleck calms down, adopting graceful movements, and basks in the adulation of Gothan residents so fed up with everything that they’re making “Kill the Rich” their battle cry.
Having the character afflicted by a neurological disorder that causes him to laugh at inopportune times was very clever. It makes him sympathetic rather than merely pathetic or murderous. Phoenix manages to terrify with that cackling laugh while his face shows panic, fear, and deep sadness.
Several times in this movie, we are thrown by things that are not what they seem, which leaves us to question whether they are just delusions fabricated to make his life seem more normal or really happening.
The girlfriend character, for example. He sees her once in the elevator, then fixates on her, the two enjoying what appears to be a caring and tender relationship. I think she is a fantasy in some parts of the movie, another creation to help ease the pain.
Two scenes really stick out in this movie for combining sick humor and empathy for this guy who can’t stop his life from unraveling: The scene where he is entertaining a group of sick children in a hospital, dropping the handgun given to him by a co-worker, and the violent scene where he shoots said co-worker but allows the other to leave the apartment.
Aside from those scenes, “Joker” really is a harrowing exploration of severe depression and mental illness, with the city’s bureaucratics removing the guardrails that keep the public safe. When told by the social worker that the city has cut funding and she can no longer offer him counseling, she has no answer to his query about where he is supposed to get the seven prescriptions he needs refilled.
When he learns that his whole life has been a lie, he turns from someone who has killed in self-defense (sort of) to someone who only feels good when he is in control, i.e., murdering. There aren’t a lot of deaths on-screen, but the ones we do see are powerful, taking out anger on his mother, the system as represented by the cops who provoke the mother’s stroke, and the city’s privileged elite as denoted by Thomas Wayne. He lashes out because no one cares and as he puts it near the end, he acts with complete lack of concern for the consequences because he has “nothing else to lose.”
He plans to kill himself on live TV, but he is so angry at the lecturing he gets from DeNiro’s brash comedy show host that he turns his rage on the man who mocked him for chasing his dream of becoming a standup comedian – a dream that is obviously futile.
Fleck has no sense of comedic timing and can’t tell a joke, but he has become reliant on the fantasy of becoming a famous comedian like his idol. Who among us has not fantasized about gaining fame and praise if only we had the talent and charisma to pull it off…
In his notebook of joke ideas and psychotic thoughts, he writes that he hopes his death has more meaning than his life. There’s some debate online as to whether Joker is killed in a car crash or if it is only the last shred of humanity and sanity left in him that dies.
In canon, he goes on to battle Gotham’s hero, Batman, so one presumes that the finale is actually occurring, his greatest moment mirrored by Bruce Wayne’s worst, standing over his dead parents in a trash-filled alley.
“Joker” is definitely one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen. It takes a deep dive into universal feelings of life being meaningless, cruel and, most of all, unfair.
The cinematography is extraordinary, director Todd Phillips using light and filled spaces to evoke a claustrophobic mood. The social worker has a sign on her office wall stating something about “feeling closed in” and we literally are.
I was curious how Joaquin Phoenix’s take on the character compares to the portrayals by the late Heath Ledger and Jared Leto. He inhabits the character, and even his emaciated body conveys desperation.
His Joker is less campy than Leto’s or Jack Nicholson’s versions and less in control of orchestrating chaos than Ledger’s Joker. This Joker is a supremely tragic and sympathetic man who is terrifying as he keeps getting pushed around by a world that’s just asking for some violent payback. He’s not a seasoned criminal toying with mobsters and ordering around underlings. This Joker is just a tragic loner getting dragged down deeper into abuse and social isolation.
There was some concern prior to the release of the movie that mentally unstable people might watch it and feel inspired to commit violent retributions of their own. It’s definitely not something that I’d recommend to someone who is easily triggered, so to speak.
The FBI is warned of numerous threats by so-called involuntary celibates, or Incels, who are young white males who feel misogynistic anger and self-pity because they are unable to find romantic or sexual partners despite desiring them. Some within that online community encourage or commit violent acts as retribution for perceived societal wrongdoing against them, although the FBI said there are no credible specific threats.
The three men he kills on the subway are a common nemesis of real-life Incels, who sometimes vent about their inadequacies on online forums expressing self-loathing and resentment of well-groomed and wealthy “Chad” types who appear to have an easier time getting women to sleep with them. Much of their misogyny comes from a sense that women, who are experiencing more opportunity and relevance in society, are depriving poor and middle-class males of a fair shot and are only concerned with using men as ATMs.
The female in the film never treats him badly. She (or the delusion of her) is supportive and caring, even after he humiliates himself in the comedy club actually trying stand-up and failing miserably. Her warm touch and the Deniro comedy show he watches with his mother are his only two pleasures in life. The closest she comes to treating him badly is the scene where she is terrified to find him sitting in her apartment and tells him that he needs to leave. She’s totally justified in doing so, but her absence removes the final guardrail keeping this man with one foot still touching reality.
Nearly all of Joker’s unleashed homicide is directed at other men. I have felt that disdain toward men who are better-looking, taller, born into wealth, all of which give them advantages that the average guy cannot possibly compete with in the sexual marketplace. Incels take it further, feeling they are entitled by birthright to start from a privileged perch, and something must be horribly wrong if they are just sad, hapless losers like the rest of us.
If I can identify and take some pleasure in watching those obnoxious guys taken out, getting burnt by the fire they are toying with, I can just imagine how deeply these incels may associate with the main character, a patron saint of awkwardness, a martyr for an upheaval where the poor rise up to take what the wealthy hoard, as we saw in the final installation of Christopher Nolan’s exceptional Batman trilogy. This Gotham isn’t as concerned with the redistribution of wealth as much as burning it down because it feels good knowing how much money the banker types are losing. So deep is the injustice that destroying the place feels like justice.
Part of us knows how that feels to be picked on by someone who’d better leave you alone if they know what’s good for them because the cornered dog bites back ferociously.
I believe the message of “Joker” is cautionary, advising what may happen if America’s wealth inequality gap continues to grow and society fails to reinvest in mental health treatment and public health generally.
It isn’t pretty how things shake out when Gotham’s privileged class flaunts their ever growing pile of blessings while simultaneously thumbing their noses at the anonymous everyman who adopts a clown mask as a symbol of grievances. It is the same middle finger that led blue collar Americans to toss a hand grenade into the political system by electing Donald Trump, relishing in the chaos he is causing to a country that has failed them.
Like Trump’s America, Gotham is a divide between the obscenely rich and never-do-wells who are just trying to survive another day and avoid getting bitten by super-rats.
Psychopaths are fascinating, but stories about them need to be cautiously treated to avoid glorifying violence or inspiring real-life crime. A mass shooting happened at another Batman-themed film in 2012 at a Colorado movie theater, resulting in 12 deaths and 58 people wounded. Fingers crossed that nothing like that happens with this new movie.
The making of this film is justified given the growing real life issues of gun violence and neglect of treating mental illness. It is set in 1981, but that works as a stand-in for the worst of 2019.
“Joker” isn’t an easy movie to sit through, but it does succeed at dragging us into a world that we can’t afford to ignore. It also leaves a lot up to the viewer to interpret, which is one qualification for art. Although violent, it easily could have focused less on creating an empathetic character and gotten away with cheap spectacle and ridiculous body counts. I give it credit for trying to be more than just another comic book movie. This one is hauntingly realistic (minus the delusions) and plausible.
It is the type of experience that most of us take antidepressants to avoid, showing the hopelessness that serves as the propellant for flammable rage that can reduce great civilizations to ashes and smashed glass.